Evan Lavender-Smith - Post-genre literature, an amazing collection of notes about family, death, drugs, sex, philosophy, football, fear, aging

Evan Lavender-Smith, From Old Notebooks (BlazeVOX, 2010)

The book is the subject and the object of the book.” (pg. 137)
In a certain respect, [From Old Notebooks] represents little more than the garbage can of my imagination.” (pg. 75)
"One afternoon I checked my facebook page and saw in the news feed thing a post by Evan Lavender-Smith, which included blurbs for his book From Old Notebooks. What struck me about the post was that instead of the blurbs being from other “creative” writers, they were from literary critics, and not just any literary critics, but some of the biggest names in Deleuze Studies: Claire Colebrook and Ian Buchanan, to name only two. Knowing nothing else about it, I automatically wanted to purchase the book and read it.
What follows are some thoughts, having finished it last night.
First, the obvious stuff. This book is a quintessential example of post-genre literature: it defies genre classification. It is fiction, nonfiction, poetry, theory, anecdote, aphorism, and probably a bit of whatever other thing you can think of. There is no plot. There are no scenes. It is, quite literally, a collection of notes. Most are only a couple lines long. None are longer than a page. It is exhilarating and stirring and compelling and engaging and fascinating at every turn.
Reading From Old Notebooks, I get to thinking about Derrida’s project of decentering described in “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.” To make the connection, recall when Derrida posits: “The center is at the center of the totality, and yet, since the center does not belong to the totality (is not part of the totality), the totality has its center elsewhere. The center is not the center.”
Imagine a cinematheque in which one film plays 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, without repeating—as if the film was a projection of a life, but the life would not be a mundane reality show type of life, it would be a carefully assembled life composed of the choicest bits. And imagine that you could walk into the theater at any point and sit down and watch the film for a few hours and then get up and go home and do whatever it is you do at home. You would always enter in the middle and exit in the middle. There would be no beginning, no ending, no set up and no closure. There would be little by way of context, except what you bring to the experience. This is one way to think about Evan Lavender-Smith’s From Old Notebooks (F.O.N.).
Another way to think about F.O.N. is to consider it in relation to David Markson’s Author Tetralogy because of the obvious influence (the form in particular, but also the death obsession). One of the many things I admire about F.O.N. is that Lavender-Smith clearly acknowledges the Markson connections, “[The books in Markson’s Author Tetralogy] are like porn for English majors” (pg. 60). He isn’t trying to deny the connections, and he isn’t trying to be cute or clever. Neither is he trying to mimic Markson or repeat what Markson has created. Instead, he is very clearly attempting to build off of the Marksonian foundation, which is one of the (many) things that makes F.O.N. so bloody exciting! It is an experiment in evolving a form. And to be blunt, I think the experiment succeeds.
How does it succeed? What is it doing differently to elaborate on Markson’s project? Well, for one thing it incorporates more personal information, more autobiography than Markson is willing or interested in sharing. I get the sense that Lavender-Smith really wants to uncover himself, shed secrets, bare himself, confess, and reveal what should not or cannot be revealed. This interpretation could of course be way off base. One could surely argue that what Lavender-Smith presents as personal information is in fact made up, fiction, etcetera. But even so, the very fact that he includes so much information about his wife and children (even if it’s fictitious) is in stark contrast to Markson’s project, which is aimed more at constructing a writer persona through assembling anecdotes rather than juxtaposing anecdotes with personal information to reveal a constructed writer.
Another way in which F.O.N. differs from Markson’s project is that it incorporates ideas for potential works of fiction or poetry, such as the opening lines: “Short story about a church on the ocean floor. Congregation in scuba gear.” These are a real pleasure to read: very interesting and provocative and inspiring, and on a philosophical level they work as a unique porthole into the mind of the writer. They allow us to see a character (presumably the author) at his most interesting: using his imagination.
The last thing I want to point out about how F.O.N. differs from Markson’s project—keeping in mind that there are probably many other differences that I haven’t mentioned here—is movement. I noticed about fifty pages from the end of F.O.N. that Lavender-Smith began circling around the fact that the book would soon be coming to an end. As I advanced toward that ending, the notes on endings (building upon the recursive theme of death as an ending) began to pile up and reverberate at a steady pace. I thought it was really cool the way he was able to push the acceleration of the text simply by the placement of the notes and the repetition of certain themes. This isn’t necessarily something I’ve noticed Markson doing — he seems to be more interested in creating brilliant concentric circles, rather than playing with speed and slowness the way Lavender-Smith does.
Speaking of themes, what are the themes in F.O.N.? Family, death, drugs, sex, philosophy, football, fear, aging, parenthood, being a writer, being a teacher, being an American, being a brother, being a thinker, being vulnerable, being strong, and maybe above all being curious. It is certainly an ontological text: a text deeply concerned with being, in all its various guises.
I could write so much more about this fantastic book, but I’ve got obligations to attend to so I’ll end with this: when December rolls around and those end of the year lists begin to appear, you can be sure that this book will be on my best books of 2010 list." - Christopher Higgs

"Possibility #1:
Evan Lavender-Smith keeps notebooks. Old notebooks. And in these old notebooks he writes snippets: movie plots, story ideas, funny things his wife or children said, potential inventions, et cetera. Evan Lavender-Smith writes these snippets in these old notebooks and, somewhere down the line, decides that he has a dozen or so old notebooks lying around and, instead of just chucking them in a storage box or, worse yet, the garbage bin, he compiles them into a single document, culls and cuts until it is a book-sized endeavor.
There are, within these possibilities, a string of other possibilities.
And like a vulture, as I read, I wait, hoping to pin down a victim, or better yet, gleefully happen upon one’s carcass.
Absolute #1:
This is a review that contains vultures, fortune cookies, and words about Evan Lavender-Smith’s From Old Notebooks.
Possibility #2:
Evan Lavender-Smith keeps notebooks. Old notebooks. And in these old notebooks he writes little things: movie plots, story ideas, funny things his wife or children say, grammarian quotes, et cetera. Evan Lavender-Smith writes these things in these old notebooks and, somewhere down the line, decides that a book could be based on this, could be written as if it was the culled and cut scenes from dozens of these kinds of old notebooks, all pulled together into a book-length endeavor.
Here is a book that is a fortune cookie. We know there is a message inside of our Chinese dinner dessert, and we have a feeling it will be a mostly vague and generic message, something we can easily digest and connect with. But there is a fleeting moment in all of us, when that frame bursts in our fingers, and we think the message might actually be something more than that.
Absolute #2:
Evan Lavender-Smith’s Blazevox title is called From Old Notebooks.
Absolute #3:
Inside of every fortune cookie, there is a note.
Possibility #3:
I am reading Evan Lavender-Smith’s From Old Notebooks and hoping that it is a book of fiction and not a culled and cut-together string of statements made honestly from old notebooks. I want this because Lavender-Smith’s book is, if fictionalized and created, if structured to look genuine but in fact earnestly planned, it is a genius enterprise. There is an arc within the lines, there is a story in each of the related bits: We learn more about his family with each continued moment, we follow the ideas of a writer and how the craft works, we learn something more about being human, about existing.
Consider these excerpts:
“How as a child I once felt that everyone but me was an automaton. –As I sometimes feel still, except for that but me.”
“By waving my hands before my face I affect physical processes of unfathomable complexity. –As I do when thinking of nothing at all.”
“Death is the glue that holds the book together.”
“It can be a terrible feeling to suddenly remember that the sun is a star”
These are just some of the possibilities.
Vultures wait for meat. Sometimes reviewers wait for books as meat. I am typically, as a reviewer, waiting for the taste of goodness, the delicious, rather than simply a hunk of flesh to tear apart in my beak.
Absolute #4: In this metaphor, From Old Notebooks is the meat and I am the vulture.
There is a possibility that I have found a new kind of appetite.
Possibility #4:
I have opened a fortune cookie and what is inside is a message that means the world to me, a message that lights me on fire, a message that tackles me from behind and pushes my face into the earth, waking me up.
Inside some books are hands that reach out and grab us, pulling our eyes to their bodice.
Absolute #5:
Some books are terrible.
Absolute #6:
Some books are tremendous.
Possibility #5:
I have opened a book that is a fortune cookie and what is inside are a chain of simple phrases, ideas, moments of thought, and together they have made me think harder and squint my eyes into the air and furrow my reader’s brow.
Absolute #7:
These are more excerpts from Evan Lavender-Smith’s From Old Notebooks:
“At every moment life suffers the light of innumerable surrounding stars.”
“Not writing my way out of death, writing my death out of my way.”
“In a universe of infinite time, we experience an infinite number of afterlives. In a universe of finite time, we experience none.”
From Old Notebooks might contain a number of false endings.”
Fortune cookies have messages in them. Books have message in them. We break the sweet shell of both to read their words. We digest both.
Absolute #8:
I truly enjoyed and highly recommend Evan Lavender-Smith’s From Old Notebooks.
Absolute #9:
I do not know how Evan Lavender-Smith wrote From Old Notebooks, though the possibilities are clear.
Possibility #6:
You may buy this book and agree.
Possibility #7:
You may buy this book and disagree.
Possibility #8:
You may not buy this book.
This is not a Chinese dinner, so there is no fortune cookie here. This is no book either – this is a review. And I am no vulture, though sometimes I perch as one, above a desert of pages, seeking blood or monumental tastes. Today I have not found a carcass, but a thriving animal, a beast of a book, one that I must let go, that I must release back into the world, so that it may run where others can watch its hide shimmer in the possibilities.
Absolute #10:
This is the last sentence of this review. " - J. A. Tyler

"There’s much at stake in The First Book. The first-time author wishes to make a good impression and, if things work out, to seduce the reader. The reader, for his or her part, hopes to love the book but looks for signs of weakness. Both parties are blind—there is no track record, no laurels; there is no critical lens. The writer covers up the bumps and bruises. The reader looks for poise and power. But if a first-timer appears sure and strong, most likely this is an illusion—beneath the polish, the writer, like the reader, is uncertain about the book’s performance and its fate.
In From Old Notebooks, Evan Lavender-Smith reveals what other writers, especially first-timers, try to hide: the influence, the bravado, the insecurity, the bravery, and the cowardice and the hubris of writing—all in the hope of creating something original.
From Old Notebooks is a collection of aphorisms, ranging from ideas for stories, novels, memoirs, and movies, to musings about books, sports, family, linguistics, and philosophy. At first the book seems like a notebook of jottings—from the mundane to the magnificent—revelations that hit the writer while in the car, at the library, or on the john. But as we attempt to find a narrative thread, we come to understand that the writer, Lavender-Smith’s proxy, is trying to make sense of it all, too. And from here the project emerges: the writer will turn his jottings into a book, a book which will be called From Old Notebooks. Let’s call it F.O.N.2.
The idea for the book is set, but it’s aim is unstable. The writer’s attempt to categorize the project is ongoing: is F.O.N.2 a journal? a memoir? a novel? a “memiovel”? This doubt lends the book its improvisatory feeling, turning the writer-character into a reader, a reader who must examine and interpret his own content, content that continually outpaces his own understanding of it.
The “plot” of the book is the evolution of its own creation.
At different points, the writer-character is concerned about F.O.N.2—Is this too cute or too smart? Will I finish it? Will I publish it? But he’s also a dreamer. He imagines a future book entitled The Illusion of Improvisation in American Literature from Kerouac to Lavender-Smith, wonders to whom he should dedicate the unfinished book, and schemes against his future literary executors. The sudden tonal shifts, from dread to dreams, portray this writer-character in different roles, from chump to champ. The reader’s response to all this is complex and fluid, too—the writer-character, as a personality, is elusive. Take for example the following series of thoughts culled at random, all of which deal with the writer’s family:

Will Jackson develop an aversion to books because his father neglected him on their account? Nearly every day now he grabs a book from my hands and speaks angrily, “Dada, stop reading!”

It hurts to wear my baseball glove with my wedding ring on.

To live in the white creases inside Sofia’s elbows, the backsides of her knees and knuckles.

Three things I would try my hardest to save were my house on fire: flash drive, baseball glove, first-edition Gravity’s Rainbow.

Three more: Carmen, Jackson, Sofia.

I am tempted to cut out that patch of skin from Sofia’s back containing her birthmark—crimson relief of Kauai—before it fades any further.

Jackson, pointing at a moth fluttering by: “A Life! A Life!”

The image of beauty that would instantly dispel all doubt—Jackson taking a bath, Carmen raising two fingers to her lips, empty autumn baseball field—for which I am constantly on the lookout and never able to resolve.
The writer-character, caught between freedom and family, is an exaggerator and a minimizer. He’s abstract and lucid, direct and indirect. He makes us shudder and swoon. The result is dynamic. As he wrestles with ideas about the book and his family, we reexamine our thoughts about the writer and the book. It’s a performance on both parts, a performance in which writer and reader have equal billing. Lavender-Smith isn’t afraid to let his guard down, to sit at the bottom of the tower, however long he daydreams about climbing it. He shows how a writer, like a reader, is always plodding in the muck, hoping to resolve the contradictions.
And if the job proves impossible, there are the creases and the birthmark and the son who sounds like Virginia Woolf: “A Life! A Life! ”
From Old Notebooks is many things: a meta-novel, a family memoir, an essay on form, a book about the First Book, an ode to self-reliance, a pillow book for aspiring writers. Above all, it’s a performance, a first book in which Evan Lavender-Smith plays his different roles, interprets his own lines, and practices his own voice—all in the hopes of emerging as himself." - Kevin Evers

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