Archive for February, 2011


An Attempt At Assessing Perec In Paris

This review was originally written for another publication, but I had a disagreement with the editor regarding substantial requested edits and opted instead to just post what I’d written because it represents what I actually took away from the book.

I have also cross-posted this at the continent. blog ( I hope it’s of some interest.


Review: An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris
By: Georges Perec
Trans. Marc Lowenthal, Wakefield Press, 2010

As its title suggests, this book is most best understood as two things: as an attempt and as exhausting. Perec tires (I mean this doubly; he tires himself, his work tires the reader) and he of course cannot succeed. An Attempt is a scattered and inconsistent failure of a project and – not in spite of but because of this – a wonderful little book.

Georges Perec is most famous as a member of the Oulipo. For most of his career he used intense formal constraints in order to shape his work, famously writing A Void (La Disparition in French) without the use of the letter ‘E’ and ordering the chapters of Life: A User’s Manual (La Vie en Mode D’emploi) according to a knight’s tour of a 10X10 grid. The constraint behind An Attempt is a simple one: Perec sits in the Place Saint-Sulpice and tries to describe all of the banal happenings he witnesses. In his terms, it is an attempt at documenting the infraordinary- “what happens when nothing happens.”

For three days, Perec sits at cafes on the square and takes notes. He makes systems and abandons them. Cataloging conventions emerge and dissolve. Certain repetitions are remarked upon, certain details settle into certain customary spots. Sometimes they cease to appear where expected. Perec pauses, resumes. He notes his pauses. He ceases to note his pauses. He starts to note the time of each pause. He counts buses and tires of counting buses. He is often fatigued and mentions being so. He takes more notes on the first day than on the subsequent two days combined.

Perec employs and abandons a slew of techniques: headings, paragraphs, proper punctuation, taxonomies and lists, various ordering regimes. He tries to separate his subjective conjecture from his objective observation via parenthetical bracketing and capture. The containment method does not work, thank god. This attempt at quarantine, another failure, is the key to the book’s success.

As An Attempt is slight, replete with failure, and engaged with intentionally dull subject matter, the question becomes: Why do I so value this book? The answer is also something slight and easily mocked: charm. Georges Perec is a thoroughly charming writer. His charm comes from his diction, his dry humor, and most of all from the inclusion of details that do not seem to belong. That is to say, the text is most charming when the recitation of the Place Saint-Sulpice’s minor goings-on is intruded upon by details of Perec’s life, his knowledge, his musings – the details that are only of the Place because Perec is in it. It is as though he is a scientist who alters his experiment by observing it, and I am thankful for this bad science. It is this intrusion of intimacy into the arid nothing of banal observation that makes his Attempt worthwhile. The key to the infraordinary is that it is open enough, event-less enough, for the quirks of the subject to emerge.

At one point, without context or even punctuation, he notes the presence of “Ghostliness” and then, italicized and parenthetically, his own “(Fatigue).”(24) Early on in the second day, he tries to list the differences he observes from the day previous. He notes that he “is drinking a Vittel water, whereas yesterday [he] was drinking a coffee” and then immediately reprimands himself with a parenthetical “(how does that transform the square?)”(30) Perec writes that a man “holds his cigarette the same way I do (between the middle finger and ring finger): it’s the first time I’ve come across someone else with this habit.”(19) The observation is really an occasion for self-reflection.

In the absence of plot, action, characters, or larger message, the text is somehow charmed. The archive of the ordinary ends up documenting the subject Perec, the grain of his narrative voice, his small movements, his moods, the rhythms of his sitting. The infraordinary that impresses itself on the reader is the infraordinary of Perec himself, not really the Place Saint-Sulpice. The ‘Place in Paris’ could be any city square. What is specific is Perec.

I should make an admission, my own highly subjective aside, though I won’t parenthetically bracket it. I adore Georges Perec. I find his work thrilling. Life: A User’s Manual and W, or the Memory of Childhood are two of my very favorite books. Naturally then, I am fascinated also with Perec the man. The complications this presents for a reviewer are obvious. Perec’s name itself carries magic or fascination into (charms) the space of a spectacularly uneventful text. An example of how this works can be found in the book at the moment when Paul Virilio passes through the Place Saint-Sulpice. Virilio does nothing of interest, but his celebrity (at least for a theorist) status heightens the interest his appearance in the text holds for the (at least this) reader. It may be the case that a reader with no previous knowledge of Perec would be significantly less enchanted than I am. It’s hard to quantify and separate out the workings of charm via name and via text. The two inevitably operate in tandem. I would hope not, but it is conceivable that a reader might not be struck by the book’s charm at all.

Still, even aside from the appeal (charm) of An Attempt as Perecian micro-autobiography, there are a number of other critical avenues of entry into the book. The most apparent of these is probably the tension between the impossibility of the archive and the passion to document- to render the ordinary as requiring preservation and at the same time necessarily only preserving a fraction of it. One could quite profitably consider the book in light of the impulse to collection, obsessive documentation, the fetishization of the banal. Marcel Duchamp was a member of the Oulipo. An Attempt could well be understood as a sort of literary ready-made.

Another angle: An Attempt as plotless noir. Perec’s practice is surveillance and his text reveals him as a detective of the everyday. We see him slugging coffee, smoking cigarettes, noting every change, every deviance from the absolute stillness. The book is run through with a strong and growing paranoiac streak and a creeping sense of an impossible search. At one moment, Perec writes of his “Unsatisfied curiosity (what [he] came here to find, the memory floating in this cafe.)” (33) His clipped prose of discomfort and undefinable mission seems almost to anticipate the aimless and dreading detectives that will come to populate later postmodern American fictions like Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy or many of Brian Evenson’s stories.

Too, the book recalls a literary tradition to which Perec is temporally and geographically closer: that of the nouveau roman. It is similar to the nouveau roman in that it attempts to catalog and account for all the things in a place. Like Robbe-Grillet, Perec piles his nouns, ticks off the usually unremarked upon. An Attempt, however, is ultimately unassimilable to the category. Perec is not so dogmatically wedded to the objective, the camera’s eye perspective or, his title notwithstanding, the true exhaustion of a place’s details. In the nouveau roman, the book is a fiction and the author can fashion a precise, detail rich environment, the description of which freezes narrative time. Perec’s constraints afford him no such luxury. Time and movement sweep details in and out of his line of sight and he can only hope for incomplete imprecision. So An Attempt is not an example of the genre, but can be taken as a genial fellow-traveler.

There are other angles to take, other points to be made for a person interested in truly exhausting An Attempt. Perec, however, took on this project as a way of focusing on the infraordinary. To focus on the infraordinary is to not lose sight of the easily overlooked material conditions of the world in favor of big events, ideas, points of rupture. In this spirit, I will close with a few notes on the circumstances and physical qualities of this edition of An Attempt. Even including supplementary material such as the translator’s afterward, An Attempt is barely fifty pages long. These are not a particularly dense 50 pages either, but they are a rich and important part of Perec’s ouvre. Marc Lowenthal’s translation marks the first time this text (originally written in 1974) has been made available in English. This is to be celebrated. Fittingly, the book’s design is also worthy of celebration. The edition is stylish, classy. It is attractive and feels good to the touch. It is charming, with all of the charm-exceeding qualities that the charming, at its best, can entail.


GRIM, ARROGANT OBFUSCATIONS (See yourself in here?)

Inspired (and suggested) by Erinrose and this magical word-confusion machine she found floating around on the internets.

Glib, Means Jeans.

The Annoying Gnash.

Menageries or Snore.

Joint in Mask.

Safest Dollar.

I’m Brutal Bender.

Fly Jeers Flaw.

Resonant Shed.

Jet Concocts Spankers.

Deem Less Jam.

Ha Ha! New Rants.

So Jam on Hand.

Raze Fang, NT.

Sizing Rebel.




mingling in the multiverse: science, the infinite, & the sublime.



First of all, I’m no scientist, so all apologies if any of my scientific logic or resulting speculations are faulty.

Scientific American sent me a supplement on Parallel Universes the other day, and because of this supplement I have had an epiphany–physics and cosmology are terrifying. The article reminded me of Borges’ Library of Babel or Garden of Forking Paths (and according to Zachary Mason, author of Lost Books of the Odyssey, in an interview on BLDGBlog, Borges is a favorite of a “disproportionately many well-read scientists.”) Even accepting that science has become much more probabilistic in the 20th and 21st centuries, and that science and fiction have long had a mutually constructive relationship, it is stunning how much these descriptions of the multiverse are reminiscent of fiction and art concerned with the infinite or the sublime.

In this article I learned that we can assume space is “infinite (or at least sufficiently large) in size and almost uniformly filled with matter, as observations indicate.” According to the article, with these basic assumptions it is a small step to make the claim that “even the most unlikely events must take place somewhere,” which is to say everything that could possibly happen has happened somewhere in the infinite spread of space.

From there the article describes the various theories of the multiverse. The first has the multiple universes have been constituted and spread around by the big bang “with a degree of randomness, generating all possible arrangements with nonzero probability.” Since our universe is assumed to be typical, there is probably a high density of them in space, so they can say that your closest identical copy is about 10 to the 10 to the 28 meters away. In the space in between we could speculate that there are innumerable nearly identical copies. According to this theory we are, ourselves, a sort of book in the library of babel—an empty “box” with infinite permutations of content stretching out on every spatial axis toward infinity. I imagine a Borges story about an immortal man trying to find his exact double. Or a Nabokov story about a mortal man who tries to kill his double for the insurance money.

Another theory have each universe as a bubble floating in a nearly empty volume. Infinitely many other bubbles exist floating in this volume, in an infinite number of configurations, but have spread, “[nucleating] like raindrops in a cloud.” This volume they are floating in is expanding faster than the speed of light, so it is a cloud that is essentially infinitely large—we could travel at the speed of light forever and never reach another multiverse. We are alone in a void. Nietzsche would be thrilled.

A third is the quantum theory, in which “every conceivable way that the world could be (within the scope of quantum mechanics) corresponds to a different universe.” The die falls on all 6 sides. Another theory has even the laws of nature varying.

We can reason that these multiverses exist, but we can’t even begin to imagine them. These theories of the multiverses are, then, sublime. A sublime experience, as I read it in its most basic sense, is a reaction to the unimaginable that leads us to re-calibrate our awareness of our position in and relation to the space and time in which we are situated. Here we reason that there are multiverses, and it leads us to reconsider our position in the vastness of outer space. This reads as an intensely jacked-up version of that classic sublime experience in which a person looks up at the night sky and feels minuscule in comparison to the scope of the cosmos.

Whereas many theories of the sublime held that a thing must be aesthetic, or sensual, it’s clear to me in reading this piece that scientific thought (which few people would argue is remotely aesthetic) has tipped over another threshold into the sublime. In here there is probably an argument that could be made regarding the stubborn persistence of mind/body dualism. More fascinating to me, though, is that one might argue that science, with its habit of upsetting prevailing opinion, blind belief, and even itself, has always been an enterprise with intimate knowledge of the sublime.


Continental Thoughts

When I read ‘html’ I read ‘hatemail’

When I see ‘VD’ I wonder: Valentine’s Day or Venereal Disease?

When I say I’m in Continent, I don’t mean I have bowel troubles. I may, however, have vowel troubles. I’m helping to edit Continent, a new journal or landmass or thoughts-holding project from a bunch of EGSers and assorted smart friends of said EGSers. Like EGS it is sprawling, changing, trans-(disciplinary/everything), and yeah, a little star-studded.

The first issue is going online (hopefully) by the time you click this link. Already online is the blog (to which I need to contribute and will soon do so), so do poke around, bookmark, add to your rss feeds. My contribution to the first issue was obtaining the rights to an out-of-print version of a Gary Lutz story that was later revised in the re-issue of I Looked Alive. I also wrote a very short introduction to the piece. Besides fiction, the issue will feature new poetry, visual art, and political and theoretical writing. Picture the edge that cuts of the advance guard of the cutting edge of the avant garde, etcetc., the image of which, repeated ad infinitum in trompe l’oeil fashion, begins to locate Continent on topology of thought. Or or, I think it’s neat.


Enormous Rabbits

big rabbit

big rabbit 2

big rabbit 3

These are for real (these are fur real).


AWP and Prose Now

Last week was a big week for a small portion of America’s publicly literate. The Association of Writers and Writing Programs held its annual conference. While typing this, I happened upon a typo-induced neologism, ennual, which I take to describe something that produces ennui once per year. As for the conference, it was enormous. Unofficially, everyone came. Officially, I heard there were about 7000 registered attendees.

The event, which is called AWP and known by its host city (ie: AWP Chicago, AWP Denver, or, this year, AWP DC- kind of like ‘The Real World’), seems to have a perpetual identity crisis, as it is not sure if it wants to be an academic conference, an arts festival, or the literary equivalent of a Comic-con (I looked it up, it’s not ComiCon, although it ought to be). AWP has panels, receptions, parties, off-site readings and events, and, most importantly, an overwhelmingly large bookfair/MFA program trade show with well over 600 booths and tables.

There are two good things that happen at AWP: 1 You meet people, especially internet friends that you can now actually know; 2) You get books. I bought and/or traded for probably 20 different books and journals at a total cost of around 100 dollars. Since returning home, I’ve begun to work my way through them. So far I’ve read Michael Stewart’s ‘The Hieroglyphics’ (freshly released by Mud Luscious Press, who I was doing some book-selling for at AWP and who are putting out exciting exciting stuff), Joanna Ruocco’s ‘The Mothering Coven’ (strange, small book of witches, their favorite foods, a birthday, and their very charming neighbor), and Andrew Zornoza’s ‘Where I Stay’ (text and images that grew on me slowly and then stuck- the kind of book that might haunt). Am currently reading Maggie Nelson’s ‘Bluets’ (a book about an obsessional romantic love of the color blue, sort of, in numbered text blocks that could be called prose poems or fragments- need to read more but already know I like it). Amelia Gray’s ‘Museum of the Weird’ is on the nightstand and ready. And there are more and more, but that’s another post.

The upshot of this reading is that it confirms that there’s a lot of good, language-thinking, thinking-thinking prose happening right now. It’s maybe fiction, often something else. ‘The Hieroglyphics’ is based upon a book of completely inaccurate translations of Egyptian hieroglyphics. Both that book and ‘The Mothering Coven’ borrow from older texts, weave in source material without direct citation ala Kathy Acker (the key difference is that both Ruocco and Stewart make note of their sources in notes, they just don’t directly cite passages). Zornoza’s text might be fiction, prose poems, documentary, (or as suggested in the dedication) lies. What’s exciting is that this is the now of prose, genre-transgressive, hybrid, better described than classified.

To close, I want to leave a longish passage from ‘Bluets.’ It was chosen at random from the part of the book I’ve already read. It isn’t fiction, it isn’t quite critical or essay writing either. The passage almost reads like an excerpt from an article in Cabinet, but it comes immediately after several more personal and stranger passages. The effect is almost collage-like, shades of blue, images in relation to blue, with the numeration of the segments providing the only obvious marker of forward progression. In any case, I think it’s pretty great.

23. Goethe wrote Theory of Colors in a period of his life described by one critic as “a long interval, marked by nothing of distinguished note.” Goethe himself describes the period as one in which “a quiet, collected state of mind was out of the question.” Goethe is not alone in turning to color at a particularly fraught moment. Think of filmmaker Derek Jarman, who wrote his book Chroma as he was going blind and dying of AIDS, a death he also forecast on film as disappearing into a “blue screen.” Or of Wittgenstein , who wrote his Remarks on Color during the last eighteen months of his life, while dying of stomach cancer. He knew he was dying; he could have chosen to work on any philosophical problem under the sun. He chose to write about color. About color and pain. Much of this writing is urgent, opaque, and uncharacteristically boring. “That which I am writing about so tediously, may be obvious to someone whose mind is less decrepit,” he wrote.


The Other Side of the Mirror – 1963,64,65


Schrödinger’s pan-dimensional eye (biuniverscopic cat)

February 2011
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