Benjamin Gottlieb lives in New York City.
Benjamin Gottlieb lives in New York City.
Brian Conn’s debut novel is called The Fixed Stars: Thirty-Seven Emblems for the Perilous Season. It is such a singular achievement that I would urge him to never publish another novel again – or at least to do so under a pseudonym – lest the idiosyncratic distinctiveness of his achievement be burdened by associations with and comparisons to his future – and in all likelihood, one would hope, quite distinct – output. I often think of how sullied Anthony Burgess’ oeuvre has been by A Clockwork Orange – I don’t particularly like the book; undoubtedly, many find that the pall of his most successful novel only heightens the appeal and effectiveness of his other works, imbuing them with unseemly potentials that might not otherwise therein exist – and I do not want this to happen to Conn.
I mentioned, just several clauses ago, that “one would hope” that Conn’s future works be distinct from The Fixed Stars; this is not because the territory that he has explored here has been mined to its fruitfully-mineable extremes. Quite the opposite: he could continue with such similarly elusive works forever, and it would undoubtedly find him a place – a niche, at the very least – in the twenty-first century literary canon; he could very easily, I imagine, pursue the myriad narrative innovations he has made with his debut for the rest of his life. I say this merely because The Fixed Stars reads to me as so entirely distinct from anything currently being published that, for entirely selfish reasons, I would not want the uniqueness of the work to become part of a “club,” so to speak, even if it were a club whose sole members were Conn’s other publications. I imagine that, had I been a canny enough prepubescent to read CivilWarLand in Bad Decline when it was first released, I would have wished the same thing for George Saunders; had I had the wherewithal and unprecedentedly premature birth to speak to Don DeLillo after he published Americana, I would have told him to quit while he was ahead; had I been born before the release of Lydia Davis’ first collection, The Thirteenth Woman and Other Stories, I likely would have urged her, too, to give up writing entirely. But, like Saunders, and like Davis, and like DeLillo, Conn is likely to only further develop and engage with his Weltanschauung, and The Fixed Stars will soon appear merely a spotty blueprint for the more considered and masterly work of his literary maturity. I look forward with immense impatience to this period, for it is his alone to pursue, and, unless he reins himself into less unique territory, whatever it yields will prove as exploratory and exciting and unforeseeable as Pastoralia and In Persuasion Nation, as Samuel Johnson Is Indignant and The End of the Story, as The Names and White Noise.
What has Conn done to deserve such anxious considerations of his future as a writer? He has written a remarkable, unique book. It exists in a largely timeless and placeless environment – references to time and place come not infrequently, but they render the world only more limitless and unfathomable – delineated in a prose style that reads as though in literal translation from some mock-Slavic language. The narrative – peppered with pronouncements and aphoristic statements that are absent, to the reader, of any easily relatable or fully comprehensible meaning or consequence – proceeds with a fascinating inscrutability comparable to a largely forgotten folk tale for which contemporary Americans can summon little immediate empathy. The prose is clear and concrete, and everything reads as solemn and forceful; yet the clarity and concreteness only make the world more foreign and incomprehensible, as the reader may find little correlation between the clarity and cohesion of the novel’s world and his or her own.
The world is intensely insular and circumscribed, yet it is difficult to get a precise sense of it, so that, to the reader, it has an opaque expansiveness and breadth that feels entirely distinct from its characters’ experiences of it; we are consistently at odds with the characters’ understandings of the rules of their world, and yet we are able to gather a certain intuitive sense of what fits and what does not. Occasionally, the narrative ventures into areas and expands certain sections in ways that seem out of place with my intuitive understanding of his world; I would imagine that other readers’ intuitive senses of the limitations of the novel’s space are wider than mine, and that such allowances would seem entirely in order. Conn does not make any demands on the readers’ understanding of this world; he merely makes inferences, which we can find fitting or out of place. Conn’s responsibility to remain arduously attuned to his intuitive understanding of the world becomes all the more important, then, as does the meticulousness with which he expands it; there is an almost palpable sense that Conn restricts his narrative from his wilder impulses, so as to maintain the intuitive clarity of his structure.
The narrator’s inability, unwillingness, or unconcern in expressing or articulating precisely what is happening and where it is happening, or to cogently convey a deeply involved image – the essential incompatibility between the clarity of the characters’ comprehension of the world and the opacity of the reader’s – ultimately works quite well, uncomfortable though it may be at times. The reader is invited into this world merely as an observer, albeit a somewhat blinded and deafened one; to gain any sense of this world means relying on senses not usually required – at least not foremost – while reading a novel: one feels as if one must touch and smell what is being given – merely reading it leaves one cold, unmoved, and exasperated, because any standard articulation and evocation – of how things and people interact, of the meaning of their interactions, of the sense of all of this – seem perennially just beyond the capacity of the descriptive passages.
There is much talk of love, particularly in extremes: characters often profess that they love something more than they do or have anything else; but what does this love mean? What is the sense of this love? We only get pronouncements; we rarely get articulated meaning. This creates an emotional divide between the characters and the reader, for we cannot quite empathize with their fears, loves, jealousies, and sadnesses; that two of the final sections are very moving is then entirely unexpected, and it is because, within this unempathic yarn, Conn has fashioned a sneakily subtle method of conveying feeling – it is quite unlikely that, were I to have read these sections earlier or separately from the novel, I would have done so with the same lump in my throat that Conn’s slow, indoctrinatory storytelling method coerced me into having.
He seems to address the discrepancy between meaning to the reader and meaning to the novel's characters early on, speaking to the attempts of representing a road in mosaics: “no two mosaicists could agree what the new road looked like. Perhaps indeed it was many new roads, a different one for each of us.” Conn makes the enlivening suggestion that his is merely one interpretation of this world. It is to me a novel proposition; usually, the worlds of writers of, for lack of a better signifier, speculative fiction are distinctly their own; no one understands the worlds of Philip K. Dick more than Philip K. Dick, and no one can represent the worlds of William Gibson more accurately than William Gibson. Conn is more inclusive: his representation, he seems to suggest, is merely one of an innumerable many; he has no more mastery over his allegorical world than any realist author does over those in which we all ostensibly live. It is an invigorating proposal.
There is a certainty not just to the prose but also to the way in which everyone approaches and understands their surroundings – this is a staple of fairy and folk tales: everything is governed by rules that, no matter how seemingly inscrutable or superstitious to the reader, are true and irrefutable within the tale. There is a fixity to everything that lends the novel a certain intractability. It is only the presumption that Conn’s telling of this story is a mere one of many that saves it from become somewhat tiresome: this is a world more malleable than the one suggested by the rigidity of the prose.
The numerous stories told within the novel bear structural similarities to those specific to fairy tales, such as foreshadowing and resolution, but Conn refuses to strictly adhere to them, often leaving a tale largely unresolved, or resolving it in a manner not dependent upon any presumed foreshadowing. They read like last-minute dismissals of, or departures from, the styles to which they are otherwise indebted. Tropes are used for the purpose of abandoning them. While this may seem a tired postmodern trick, the progression of the novel, and the characters’ seeming unconcern for any such fairy tale-esque resolution, serves only to further bolster the idea that this is a world comparable to but far from compatible with “ours”: resolution is neither expected nor necessary. There is an effectively unnerving lack of clear consequence to anything, an unrelenting weightlessness to each part of the novel; even when events are endowed with a consequential flavor, the significance is supplied through a sheer exposition that beguiles far more than it informs. When the final two chapters of the novel build toward a resolution of sorts, it feels anticlimactic and unnecessary: we have long since abandoned the world of resolution.
It would be difficult to discuss this novel without at the very least addressing its postmodern elements. Conn takes a nearly Mannerist approach to his telling, but there is a sincerity to his tongue-in-cheek style – indeed, this sincerity is all that allows the work to sustain itself; otherwise its already considerable self-imposed limitations would only further encroach upon the connotative expansiveness of the work, and it would collapse under its own self-conscious cheekiness. This is not to say that the work is not cheeky: the syntax is of a kind of mongrel fairy talese, and references to “post-late-capitalism” abound. This latter term beckons the likes of Frederic Jameson and Francis Fukuyama, and in many ways these invocations are the weakest part of the novel: such allusions seem out of place to my increasingly intuitive understanding of it, even while it was precisely these allusions that initially allowed me to feel as though I had gained access to any such understanding. The term seems designed to create a framework for understanding the novel as a kind of post-postmodernist work, as a take on Robert Coover’s take on fairy tales – a return to the source, in a way, but a return dependent upon discursive postmodern departures.
Is a description of the novel’s plot necessary? I don’t believe that it is; at the very least, my enjoyment of it was not dependent upon the plot – indeed, many of the more plot-oriented passages were for me the least engaging –, and many of the finest passages – most notably, a simply terrific short “historical” play, which details the events surrounding the marriage of the Commander of the starship Theseus, Duke of Athens to the daughter of the ambassador from Neptune – do little to advance the narrative. Suffice it to say that there is a plague, an annual celebration of great import to the society, considerable preparation for a pageant, kidnappings, messenger-delivered children, quarantines, efforts on the part of the society's children to accumulating knowledge about their society’s history and culture, and a great much more: people get lost, people get in fights, people have sex in unusually pungent or asensual ways, people grow jealous and suspicious of each other. The events take place in some distant future, after all that we have taken for granted in some fashion or another leads to the destruction of contemporary civilization. Wonderfully bizarre aphorisms – “Let peace erupt within you” –, beautifully unexpected descriptions – “The binder of brooms leapt into the room and struck the boar-bristle woman behind the ear with a young pumpkin” – and hilariously stilted dialogue – “'I am only playing a haunting melody in this dell, in order to frighten the children’” – abound, but, after the abundant quirks and whimsies pass and fade into memory, what is left is a singular portrait of an obtuse, alien, and impossibly knowable society. There is a distinctly patriarchal quality to this largely collapsed society, despite certain efforts to place female characters at its forefront; but Conn does not use this to offer any analyses or interpretations of patriarchal societies, as perhaps he shouldn’t – it would read entirely at odds with the style of the rest of the novel, even as it might make it a more comfortable or comforting read.
Conn’s achievement is not so much in his fantastical and stoic fabrications as it is in the unexpected inclusiveness of his telling of them. The frame of the narrative is so tenuous and its contents so weightless that any story held solely within it seems to evade memory; those that extend beyond the narrative frame – the play, an early passage between two girls on a river, a later passage between two men and a corpse – are indelible in their alternately funny, sweet, and chilling singularity. The vagueness of this world is charted in concrete terms and phrases, but, between the limited and wonderfully awkward vocabulary and syntax and the incomprehensibly meaningful pomp of everything, Conn lets his readers in to roam and make of it what they will. This world isn’t Conn’s; he’s just its messenger.
The image used for this post is a detail of the cover of The Fixed Stars. The cover design is by Lou Robinson and the photos are by Dreamstime.com.
The prose of Joanna Ruocco’s remarkable debut novel The Mothering Coven is so exuberant and thoroughly enlivening in its contagious and cheeky love for the mutability of language’s meanings that its plot often seemed to serve a subsidiary role to its stylistic rollicks; one could read for sound and linguistic play alone – its rhetorical approach to story seemed a narrative unto itself, and one could enjoy and take from this element of the novel as much – indeed, far more than – one could from practically any other published work out there, contemporary or otherwise. Since reading Ruocco’s new collection of stories, Man’s Companions, I’ve been tempted to return to The Mothering Coven and see whether these two facets – its style and its "substance," that is to say, perhaps erroneously, plot – are quite as easily extricable from each other as the ready fun of the prose alone made it seem to me. Man’s Companions hews to a several few styles, none of them quite what one could call “Ruocco’s own,” if only in the sense that, unlike in The Mothering Coven, her method seems not so immediately and brazenly unique; where The Mothering Coven at times felt like something of a novel as tone poem, the stories in Man’s Companions all seem a more cogent commingling of form and function, each narrative progressing, informing, and slyly abetting their respective needs. I now suspect I had missed a great deal of The Mothering Coven’s virtuosity by believing it, in a sense, to be the singularized alloy of two separate products: a wonderful, funny tale, and an exhibit of stunningly confident and unusual writing. Man’s Companions is something of a corrective to my reading of The Mothering Coven – an entirely unexpected one, as the novel is one of my favorites. But the short story collection commends Ruocco’s abilities as not merely those of a stylistically inventive writer, but as of a thoroughly capable writer whose stylistic chops are no less honed than her narrative, structural, and emotional ones.
Where The Mothering Coven read to me as a kind of sui generis gem, Man’s Companions offers its readers a considerable breadth of influences to apply to its various styles and subject matters. The early Lydia Davis seems not unfairly applicable, as does Amy Hempel, not merely for their separately singular abilities to convey a tremendous amount of information and a great emotional range with an economy of text, but also for the alternately insouciant and piercingly human wit with which they do so. It is this voice that informs the vast majority of the stories in the collection: they are told in the first person and relate the subtleties of its narrator’s quotidian thought processes. Many conclude with minor profundities or alterations that render the preceding text in a new light, casting the lives of their narrators, with a quick and acute nuance, in entirely new emotional territory. This becomes something of a structural crutch for Ruocco, and, after a certain point, many of the stories constructed in this way bleed into each other; it took me some time to become convinced that the stories weren’t connected in a less severely obscurantist manner similar to those of The Book of Disquiet or the untranslated Los cuentos de Juana. “Ugly Ducks,” “Small Sharks,” “Cat,” and “Canary” are perhaps the finest stories within the collection to use this last-sentence-heavy technique, and it’s likely not coincidental that they are also the first four stories of the collection: the style begins to wear after a point, and Ruocco’s stylistic and diegetic expansion later in the collection becomes increasingly welcome, as fine-tuned, effective, and acutely perceptive as each story individually is.
I first read this collection about two months ago; before beginning to reconsider the work for review, I read it again, and found, not entirely unsurprisingly, that I had forgotten many of the stories that fall into this structural camp, or that I had conflated several. The stories prove themselves tremendously ripe for rereading: they are so unassumingly complete that new elements and possibilities emerge with each reading. They are also, particularly when read alone and out of order, great fun. I had largely forgotten ever having read “White Horses” come my second reading; and, upon my second reading – in which I read it separately from the others –, I wondered how forgetting such a funny and observant and subtly imaginative story was possible. The same goes for such marvels as “Flying Monkeys,” “Hart,” and, especially, “Unicorns.”
The reason, I imagine, is that they come in such a quick flurry of other like-minded and stylistically similar – if uniformly perceptive and poignant – stories, and that this renders them artificially interchangeable. The brevity and unpretentious ease of each story makes one feel as though it is entirely possible to breeze through the collection; and it is, but doing so would ensure missing out on a lot. These last-sentence-heavy stories largely hew to the kind of first person narrative story released under a title with a profusion of personal pronouns. The collection is a slow progression, with several hiccups, from this style into other, singularly represented ones. “Represented” seems off-putting, as if these stories were mere pastiche; but each story manages to recall others stylistically while forging an unexpected emotional and narrative path of its own. This is what makes Man’s Companion’s such a revelation: one would imagine, after The Mothering Coven, that Ruocco’s interests were predominantly in the purely verbal; the “corrective” quality of this collection is its proof that her interests are far more inclusive and wide-reaching, that she has a rare ability to fashion wholly believable characters quite quickly and that her understanding of their emotional states is paramount to her. As the collection progresses, the usage of the style of the first stories gradually wanes, reappearing only to upend the conventions initially laid down. And it is the stories that are not told in this style that have stayed with me most, and that I enjoyed most during both readings. “Endangered Species” and “White Buffalo” are to me the most effective stories in the collection; they are two of the best stories I have read in a long time. And they could hardly be more distinct from each other, the former a hilarious, obscured account of record-taking and naming, the latter a broad and painfully funny story of the numerous quotidian problems that beset, to varying degrees, a school and its teachers and administrators. I have read both countless times; I cannot tire of their quiet ingenuity and the fascinated receptiveness Ruocco grants her variously adumbrated and expansive worlds.
Because of the uneven stylistic mixture of the stories within Man’s Companions, the collection feels somewhat cobbled together from the author’s tremendous output; the stories are uniformly wonderful, but their order and form lends them a facility that ultimately does the collection more harm than good: each story demands to be read separately from the others, as a singular entity, but they are arranged with an informality that makes it easy to casually read one after a casual other. That so many focus on characters of varying degrees of obsessiveness, indecision, anxiety, self-consciousness, and idealizing wonder – it would seem important to note that they are largely female, particularly given the implications of the title of the collection, but this implication is as far as Ruocco's exploration of the relationship of women to men goes; furthermore, the female characters are not specifically feminine or primarily representative of notions of femininity; I could relate to many of them more than most male characters of any works in recent memory likely has only to do with the deftness with which Ruocco has created each person – only further lends the stories a conceptual cohesion that I believe just distracts from the collection's strongest qualities: the acuity of its prose, characterizations, and rendering of emotion. But it seems like senseless grousing to focus on such things: we are lucky to have a writer like Ruocco elucidating, examining, and celebrating so much for us, and we are quite fortunate to now have another book that attests to her wide abilities. I cannot wait to read The Mothering Coven again; I imagine it will be as if it were the first time.
The image used for this review is a detail of Birds, by Robert Hodgin. It is used for the cover of Man's Companions.
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.
It seems a fairly uncontroversial claim to make that, during the nigh-interminable four weeks between the announcement of this year's Pulitzer Prize winners and last week's second edition of the recipient of its award for Fiction, Tinkers was the most widely sought-after new book in the United States. Bookstores across New York were flooded by back orders for the first edition, which had mostly sold out before the Pulitzers were even announced; seventy holds had been placed on the novel in the Brooklyn Public Library, meaning that it would take me a little over four years to ever get hold of a library copy of it. There was also, with the excitement over such a small book by such a small publisher receiving such a grand prize, a deep puzzlement. The Pulitzers, like any major award, is largely defined by its relationship with the heavy-hitters in its respective fields: no matter how good any work may be, the thinking seems to go, a work must still be buffered by the prominence of its publisher in order to receive such a major notice. Why, then, and how, did the Pulitzer judges even notice this tiny little thing? The Pulitzers for Letters, Drama, and Music are typically an award about which those who work within the fields of its recipient categories love to grouse, comfortable in the knowledge that the philistines on its juries are merely incapable of making better informed, more artistically adventurous decisions; its juries, the thought goes, appeal to populist sentiments, and this is why so much smaller work goes unnoticed. When something that few have even heard of, like Tinkers, wins, it causes many to become uneasy.
Last week, the second edition was released, and I was one of a great many to pick up a copy. I have begun reading it, but haven't made it terribly far yet, certainly not far enough yet to form any concrete opinion of it. The prose is often wonderful, but occasionally it reads quite awkwardly; the dialogue meanders with clichés of how elderly people and their distracted grandchildren speak; and the whole thing seems lugubriously burdened by the pall of the death of its protagonist, George Washington Crosby, with the number of days before his death mentioned upon each new introduction to him. The intention, I imagine, is to give his remaining life added thrust, to add heft and urgency to the thoughts of a man whose proximity to death is so consistently referred to; instead, it obscures any of his ostensible sentience, it makes him doubly dead – in his proximity to death and in his existence so deeply cast in the shadow of his oncoming death. Paul Harding, the author of Tinkers, must then try all the more to bring this character to life: he must make Crosby live in spite of, or even in indifference to, his death, not because of it. Harding seems to take it for granted that his death makes any meaningfulness within his life all the more desirable; he doesn't pay much heed to enlivening Crosby beyond whatever the reader, in the urgent desire to lend this man life before he loses it, brings to him.
I am eager to have my opinion considerably changed the more I read it, and I would love to hear what others who have read the novel think of it.
Earlier this week, the wonderful Triple Canopy announced the recipients of its first round of commissions. As would be expected from such a curious and consistently invigorating enterprise as Triple Canopy, the projects all sound invariably fascinating; the full list of recipients may be found here.
From this early point – a point so early in the projects' developments that it is entirely unfair to begin making any such judgments –, several stand out as particularly intriguing, whether because of the projects themselves or the track histories of their respective creators. Anna Lundh's is emblematic of both. 2009 marked something of what must have been a banner year for the artist; at the very least, it was then that I found out about her, when her work proved consistently among the most memorable of the staggering five New York exhibitions that she participated in. The one sentence description on Triple Canopy's Commissions page sums up her proposal: "An investigation into a 'vision of a vision': Karl-Birger Blomdahl's unfinished computer opera, inspired by Hannes Alfvén's 1966 novel The Tale of the Big Computer." Much of Lundh's work is about uncovering or retracing nearly forgotten or effaced moments of the past: in last year's terrific exhibition, Avant-Guide to NYC – Rediscovering Absence, Lundh's contribution, Front-time Recordings, recreated the movements that Barbro Östlihn – like Blomdahl, a now deceased Swedish artist – made around New York, the city to which she immigrated in 1961. It was a uniquely compelling and touching portrait of the movements of an artist who lived just beneath the avant-garde radar of her time: it was not so much an effort, as one would expect, to recover the work of a forgotten artist as it was an effort to bring back to some palpable approximation of life the artist herself; the aching humanity and canny tribute to the cult of the artist that gave this project its power made it quite distinct from other work of similar pursuits. Her Triple Canopy commissioned project bears a superficially similar premise, but one can surely expect something utterly different from Lundh, whose curiosity, as it was on display in New York last year, never seems to allow her to retread previously explored territory.
Graham T. Beck has written many acutely funny and perceptive articles for such esteemed places as The New York Times, McSweeney's, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, frieze, and Art In America, among others. His summary of Christie's' recent record-breaking sale of Picasso's Nu au Plateau de Sculpteur (Nude, Green Leaves and Bust) was one of the most pungent to come out in its frenzied wake: the price is explicable, he explains, "for the same reason that my whiskey chocolate chili never wins the annual firehouse cook off: popularity, whether measured in US dollars or cayenne-smudged secret ballots, has everything to do with the lowest common denominator." His project for Triple Canopy, "a survey of FS-595, the official color palette of the United States," is such a forehead-slappingly obvious great idea that he now bears the burden of making his project live up to its extraordinary potential; fortunately, one has every reason to believe that he is capable of doing this.
Claire Barliant, whose art writing I am unfamiliar with but am now quite eager to read more of, has proposed another fascinating project. The Commissions page describes it thus: "Revisiting Mankato, which in 1862 was the site of the largest mass execution to occur in US history, and questioning the value of manufactured memory." Pivotal and largely forgotten moments of US history are always welcome for artistic and scholarly rediscovery, as are explorations of memory; and, judging at least from Barliant's observational skills as made apparent in her short, perceptive essay on Louise Bourgeois – she is an artist about whom one may often tire of reading, as rarely does anyone find anything strikingly novel and perceptive to discuss in her work; but Barliant's approach to her singular and largely un-dissected mystique feels entirely new; it is available here –, she seems well-suited to the task.
The two other projects that caught my eye fall on either end of premise vs. artist's track history spectrum. In the former camp is James Thomas and Megan O'Hara's proposal: "On its fortieth anniversary, revisiting NASA's Tektite project, the sci-fi-inspired underwater habitat that provided America with a fleeting vision of technologically oriented utopia." This sentence is grammatically incorrect in at least two ways, but no matter: the project sounds thrillingly fun. A quick Wikipedia search for the Tektite project provides a much abridged, notably less sexy account of the program, so I can't wait to see what their proposal unearths and how it incorporates the "technologically oriented utopia" angle. On the other end of the spectrum is Eve Sussman's proposal for whiteonwhite, described as "a dual-stream thriller randomized in real time; an experimental film noir." Sussman's work is reliable for the searching breadth of its thought and the enchantment of its aesthetic, and I very much look forward to following her into this new project.
The image is a permutation of Wrong Place, Right Time, a poster by José León Cerrillo, created for the Triple Canopy commissions.