Jaimy Gordon - Concatenation of surprising events, intoxicatingly unhinged prose style and get-down-and-roll-in-the-mud passion for language

Jaimy Gordon, Bogeywoman, Sun & Moon Press, 1999.

"Funny and creative, a playful and intelligent addition to the coming-out genre, this is a highly entertaining novel from Gordon. Narrator Ursula Koderer, the self-described bogeywoman of the title, has a troubling tendency to fall in lust and love with "girlgoyles," those alluring creatures with "luscious round bumps instead of icky frog danglies." Ursula starts her story at age 16, at her beloved Camp Chunkagunk, "Tough Paradise for Girls," where she yearns for the girlgoyle Lou Rae Greenrule. After an unplanned expedition off camp grounds with Lou Rae gets Ursula in big trouble, her TV-personality father sends her to an expensive Baltimore mental hospital. There the team of "dreambox mechanics" (psychiatrists) includes one Madame Zuk with whom Ursula falls instantly, complexly and curatively in love. Much of the rest of the novel takes place in and around what Ursula calls "the bughouse," where Ursula's desperately rebellious tactics--seducing, stealing equipment, contriving to form a musical group--make a perfect fit for the jubilant fireworks of her narrative voice: "Then I heard an exotic familiar squinch, and taking my chin to the floor I saw... the silver sandals of Doctor Zuk.... I heard, illegibly vibrating, the low tobacco-cured c-string of her voice. She was sort of crooning sumpm. My heart drowned." Bits of Gordon's verbal technique evoke Ulysses, Lolita, Salinger, David Foster Wallace and Jeanette Winterson, but she sounds like none of these for long: her concatenation of surprising events, her intoxicatingly unhinged prose style and her get-down-and-roll-in-the-mud passion for language make this an extraordinary piece of fiction." - Publishers Weekly

"Ursie Koderer, a.k.a. "Bogeywoman" tests her mettle for nine years at Camp Chunkagunk, aptly nicknamed Tough Paradise for Girls. Besides the usual swimming and crafts, Bogeywoman cultivates other hobbies: following animal tracks and cutting up her inner arms and wrists. As she begins to endure the crushes of adolescence, in her case on other girls, she becomes even bolder. When she and a friend decide to hike beyond the camp's boundaries, Bogeywoman is whisked away to a mental hospital, where the psychiatrists, referred to as "dreambox mechanics," plumb the depths of her maladjustment. She clams up for months at a time, preferring her own counsel and living by her wits. Audacious Bogeywoman brings to mind the heroine of Blanche McCrary Boyd's The Redneck Way of Knowledge (LJ 5/15/82) and Molly Bolt in Rita Mae Brown's Rubyfruit Jungle (1973). This coming-of-age tale features explicit language and, beyond that, a vernacular unto itself. Gordon's third novel is not for timid readers." - Lisa S. Nussbaum
Jaimy Gordon, Shamp of the City-Solo, McPherson, 1993.(1974)

"This fantasy novel occurs in what may be thought of as a dystopian parallel-universe, a world recognizable to ours but set in an odd remove where the hero's hunger for fame shows its mythic origin. Hughbury Shamp is the reluctant teen-age hero who becomes apprenticed to three masters at the West Poolesville Depot on the Sumpsky Prospect, across the River Sump from Big Yolk, the City-Solo. his education involves a series of preposterous and hilarious misadventures with the likes of the impresario Sergei Shipoff, Dr. Harry Analarge, and the World Friar Tapsvine, all the while he is being propelled toward stardom as prize-winning speaker at the murderously competitive Arslevering Ox-Roast."

"This is the third edition of one of the finest comic novels to appear in the last half century, a book that has been compared with the very best of Flann O’Brien, Angela Carter, and Witold Gombrowicz. Appearing first in 1974, Shamp of the City-Solo quickly became an underground sensation. This “fantasy” novel takes place in a dystopian parallel universe, a world set at an odd remove where the heroÂ’s hunger for fame displays its mythic origin. Hughbury Shamp is the reluctant teenager who becomes apprenticed to three “masters” at the West Poolesville Depot on the Sumpsky Prospect, across the River Sump from Big Yolk, the city-solo. His education proceeds through various misadventures with the likes of impresario Sergei Shipoff, Dr. Harry Analarge, and the World-Friar Tapsvine, all the while he is being propelled toward stardom as the breakfast speaker at the murderously competitive Arslevering Ox Roast. The writing is simply extraordinary –a style that seems born of Lawrence Sterne and Djuna Barnes, with sidelong glances at Samuel Beckett’s Watt, Marcus Aurelius, and the works of Sir Thomas Browne. With her very first novel, Jaimy Gordon managed that almost impossible feat: a novel of lasting consequence."

"Something new in the great free-wheeling tradition of Petronius, Rabelais and Swift... and what could be better?" - Hayden Carruth

"To say Ms. Gordon is fertile with metaphor is to only hint at her abilities; examples burst with prolific abandon from every page... Gordon's novel remains foremost a comic triumph." - Aspect

"When I first read this novel I thought it far ahead of most new writing. I feel the same upon a later reading. I'm struck by its originality, its loving cynicism, its irony, its poetic force." - William Goyen

Jaimy Gordon, She Drove Without Stopping, McPherson, 1993.

"At 21, Jane is a frankly sexual creature, footloose and imprudent. She trades her dormitory room for a deserted house on the outskirts of town which she shares with Jimmy, a wandering Adonis. Her unorthodox lifestyle takes her across numerous obstacles, but her quest for independence culminates in Los Angeles where she saves herself."

"Avant-garde writer Gordon, here charts the madcap, trouble-prone, often raucous adventures of quixotic Jane Turner, aged 22 in the 1960s setting. The novel opens with Jane plotting to shoot Philip, her seductive, stingy, manipulative father, who represents a tyrannical male world of doctors, rapists, cops and tow-truck drivers who make Jane wonder whether she needs men at all. Deciding, nevertheless, to be sexually aggressive, she takes lovers--Willie Usher, a kindly black junk dealer, and then golden-haired Jimmy, with whom she lives in an abandoned farmhouse in Ohio after she escapes from the dorm at Harmonia College. Running away and eluding what she feels are unjust rules, Jane tears across the country in a "moneygreen Buick" and rejoins Jimmy in L.A. during the antiwar protests. Jane tends bar, and she and Jimmy drink and revel with the neighborhood oddballs--until the ominous appearance of spooky Raymozo the Rayman. Writing with witty ebullience, Gordon unleashes a tale that is nontraditional and open-ended." - Publishers Weekly

"Jane, the protagonist of this extraordinary coming-of-age novel, lurches and stumbles through childhood and adolescence and into early adulthood in a kind of freefall nightmare which brings into question the very basis of the American way of life. All sense of family, love, and emotional relationship is twisted into harsh, often brutal forms as Jane moves from being fondled by her father as a young child to being rejected by him when she becomes a gawky pre-adolescent. The difficulties she has with her father seem to catapult her through a crazed early adult life full of odd characters, seedy back streets, and frightening incidents until, in the end, she comes to a personal resolve. The writing is vivid, intensely poetic, and just sassy enough to make palatable the harshness of the reality being described." - Jessica Grim
Jaimy Gordon, Circumspections from an Equestrian Statue, Burning Deck, 1979.

"Over the summer, my creative writing professor Wayne Thomas handed me Circumspections from an Equestrian Statue by Jaimy Gordon, who sits on the review’s Advisory Board. As I’m an aspiring fiction writer and playwright, Wayne and another of my professors, H. M. Patterson, decided the novella would be a new source of inspiration for helping me move from one medium to another. I was to ask myself how Gordon’s novella might be adapted for the stage.
I fancy myself a Jungian scholar, so my initial temptation was to try and dissect Gordon’s characters in order to discover the “bigger picture” behind their symbolic placement in the novella as a whole. All for naught. The more I read, the more I decided that Gordon’s intention was not to write some enigmatic social commentary that only the intelligentsia could truly appreciate. I believe she really just wanted to tell an interesting, slightly absurd and comedic tale about a simple-minded general; the simple-minded general’s dead nephew, overbearing mother-in-law, promiscuous wife; a theologian; a theologian’s wife; and a British gynecologist who sends everyone into frenzy.
I was impressed by Gordon’s ability to introduce dynamic and compelling characters from page one. Her scenes and dialogue are written so precisely and unpredictably in a style reminiscent of theatre of the absurd. Her story grabbed my attention from page one without employing the cheap tricks of lesser writers and Hollywood directors—explosions and impromptu sex scenes—but with a mastery of language and scene.
I feel that I must caution readers to thumb through her books with an open and careful mind. Speed readings won’t allow one to appreciate her subtle craft. A reader unwilling to fully digest her work risks the chance of missing her comedy and commentary.
All in all, I believe Circumspections could make for an enjoyable and unforgettable night of theatre, if someone were to finally adapt the novella for the stage. Gordon has said people have suggested the work shift from page to stage, and she’s even expressed an interest in doing so herself." - David Roncskevitz
"I would rather read than write—and even among temptations to write, critical articles rarely figure. But sometimes there is compensation for against-the-grain effort in the occasion to read the whole work of an author I admire, re-read, that is, and as a whole, what earlier appeared as installments.
I hope no one will suppose that I am interested in Jaimy Gordon because she was once my student. That was long ago and, besides, it was clear from the beginning that she had nothing to learn from me.
Her oeuvre is rather small (still, of course, unfinished): there are to date three novels, a novella, a book-length poem, and enough shorter work in a variety of genres to fill, if collected, another volume.
Jaimy Gordon was born in Baltimore, went to college at Antioch, afterwards lived in California, was one of the first students in the graduate writing program at Brown, stayed on in what turned out to be a short-lived program to get the degree Doctor of Arts. (Only three altogether were ever granted—the other two went to Hank Hine and Gayl Jones.) After a few more years in Providence, working a while for the State Arts Council, she left to teach at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, where she runs the creative writing program.
I’m sure she has lived elsewhere. At some point, for instance, there was a stay in West Virginia. She is not easy to keep track of.
She Drove Without Stopping (1990—I am not keeping to chronology) seems to follow the main stops of its author’s itinerary. In this novel, Jane Turner immediately presents herself as thinking of murdering her father. It is a Bildungsroman, in which Jane tries every way she can think of to eliminate her father, which is impossible, since her father is part of her.
On page 31, the narrator moves from first to third person and becomes "The Adventuress." Still a child, she has begun to experience her own life as a story told. Throughout her account, it is often repeated that she was the "happiest of infants," a happiness blasted by the sense that her father has rejected her. At twelve (many of her most important memories go back to this particular age), she
'raised her head, having sniffed something in the air, and then she felt something warm and fragrant, but distinct, brush her as it passed by. It was her spirit, which had seemed so beautiful to her in the beginning. And it still did, but it was going on without her. Jane, amateur of horror, saw what had happened. She was the opposite of possessed; she was vacated. And when escape began to beckon to her during this period, the idea was always to catch up to the happiness she had been born to.'
This sense of vacancy is central to Jaimy Gordon’s work, as it is liable to be to an "amateur of horror."
Jane suffers from what the romantics called "dejection": seeing without being able to feel what is seen. So her reactions are an outsider’s:
'When Jane was twelve an odd thing happened: she got scared that when she heard someone had died, she might laugh.
Jane rushed through adolescence with her own face averted.'
And sex becomes "feeling a kind of unlimited desire," for which there is no suitable object.
She even began to wonder if it wasn’t a sham, this pairing of human women with human men, an expurgated copy of what you were really looking for.
She leaves college (this is in Ohio) to squat in a vacant house in the country, an unprotected place "where anything could happen to you. That is what she wished, for anything to happen to her." But the anything that happens to her (among other things, a rape) is always, while it is happening, already in some sense a story. Her lover Jimmy is usually drunk, but
'Not for a minute did she believe that Jimmy was an authentic drunk or she herself an authentic tramp. She knew these were merely floorshows whereby each soul made itself visible, rooting up its unspeakable unrest and joining it to a convention the world understood only too well—anything to take on an outward shape.'
Jimmy is nearest to being someone she can be with, but finally he is
'not her type because, she realized suddenly... no man was her type. Every man stood in the way of some vague, fantastic solitary adventure.'
This reappears, on the surface or under it, in all of Jaimy Gordon’s work. Her characters seem always in deep emotional agreement with Rochester’s famous complaint to his wife of "so great a disproportion ‘twixt our desires and what is ordained to content them."
In the end, Jane remains an "adventuress" but returns to first person and is content to murder her father in words, in writing.
The Bend, the Lip, the Kid (1978) is, as the subtitle has it, "real life stories." It is actually one story. Or rather, one poem—in a fluent free verse. It is not a "novel in verse," not exactly a narrative even, but a story does emerge in the sixty-odd pages.
The central character, "the Lip," is called Jaimy (well, but Jaimy Gorton). On one side of her is McMagus, "the Bend," now in the Rhode Island State Prison, "doing his fourth of 10 to 15 for a bank job." (The author did, in fact, spend many hours giving lessons in creative writing to the inmates of this adult correctional institution.) McMagus has a theory—an obsession—that the shape of his penis, bent so as to make sex "difficult," has made him a criminal.
On her other side is "the Kid," Dennis, alias Dionysos, a young hood just out of jail, who lives with, and off of, the Lip for two years. Their sexual relation is what the book celebrates (bendless, apparently) and though at the end it is meaningless, for the Lip it is the closest she can get to reality. (In She Drove Without Stopping, the main character will come to think of "sexual love as an organizing principle, a zone where she would believe in at least one thing.") "I’m the sole survivor of meaning," Jaimy (Gorton) says. And in this poem "all of the meanings end in real life."
The Bend, the Lip, the Kid seems to me a major work, one that should be more widely known. It is not only a very good poem, but a work which, if put with her fictions, sits well with them and enriches them.
Her other work in verse is not as important. The Fall of Poxdown (1972) is a mock epic, The City Planner & the Mad Bomber (1976) a satire. All her poetry, and much of the prose, is patterned after traditional—or archaic—genres. This is true also of her plays. Foetid Taters (with James Shreve, 1978) is a parody of the Greek play Philoctetes. The Rose of the West (1976) is "A Text for a Masque." She has inserted a mummer’s play into She Drove Without Stopping, and, years earlier, presented one in Roger Williams Park in Providence to celebrate the spring equinox.
I think she may never have published her play The Lettuce Vampire. A pity.
The short story, though she has written some lovely ones, does not seem to appeal much to her. "A Night’s Work" (collected in Best American Short Stories 1995) she developed from an entry in Stith Thompson’s index of folktale motifs. Private T. Pigeon’s Tale (1979) has a similar feel. Certain folk motifs have a special place in her work, for instance that of the "grateful dead." Many of her short fictions are actually studies for novels in progress.
Circumspections from an Equestrian Statue (1979), in length between a story and a novel, is one of her most delightful works. It has a precise historical setting: General Burnside has returned from the American Civil War (he was the North’s worst general, by some margin) to build his house, be elected governor of Rhode Island, and become famous for the cut of his whiskers ("sideburns"). Having, after four years of marriage, no child, he engages P. Mariam Wishey, "pioneer of gynecology," to examine his wife. (I would like to think Wishey is historical, but I’ve yet to find a reference to him.) This situation is complicated by the ghost of Burnside’s nephew, who disappeared during the battle of Fredericksburg—the General’s great fiasco—and by the fact that Mrs. Burnside is not (as everyone in the story seems to assume) asexual. It is a tightly constructed and very funny story in limpid prose.
Circumspections and She Drove Without Stopping move in historical time, albeit different centuries. Other work is either vaguely contemporary (The Bend, the Lip, the Kid; Bogeywoman) or in once-upon-a-time. Shamp of the City-Solo (1974) takes place in a sort of alternate or parallel world, familiar but unplaceable.
Hughbury Shamp, a teenager with a yen for fame—note: all three novels are Bildungsromane—follows three masters whom he introduces at the beginning of his first-person account, an echo of Marcus Aurelius starting his meditations. Someday a scholar will track down the echoes and allusions in Shamp, classical, biblical, historical, casual—more, I’m sure, than in The Waste Land. She has admitted to being, at that time, deeply into seventeenth-century writers like Browne and Aubrey, as well as Urquhart’s Rabelais and Burton’s Thousand and One Nights. One may suspect she dipped also into the earlier melancholy Burton and Euphues and even the often despised Sartor Resartus. In other words, with Shamp she joins the tradition of English prose analogous to what poets called "strong lines" as opposed to "plain style." This puts her at odds with most contemporary novelists, but leaning towards someone like Djuna Barnes or the Gaddis of The Recognitions.
Shamp takes place in Big Yolk, which sounds like New York, but is really a mindscape. There is a deserted subway and a "Sump" whose first description is typical:
'Beyond us the Sump rolled mosquito-flecked in its trench. Behind lay a long stretch of acid pine barren, creased with superhighway, pocked with gas station. Lest they fall upon it, swarms of raindrops clung tremulously to the air.'
Here Shamp’s first master Shipoff builds a depot and lays plans to take over Big Yolk, the "city solo." Everything in the book is somehow just not quite what one knows, and yet recognizable. Shamp swears, for instance, "by Chrust!"—and, strangely enough, it sounds right.
The fame that Shamp is after can only be got by a display of rhetoric, by soloing at the city-solo. This, after many vicissitudes, he does, thus outdoing his three masters, and is rewarded with a hotel in his honor. As in each of Jaimy Gordon’s three novels, there is at the end a surprising success and a continuing hunger. Shamp refuses to move into the hotel he is offered, but lives in the deserted subway, claiming "one real pleasure, and that is my joy to be quit of whatever, to have nothing but my hole and the meadow [which he can see] at the far end." He addresses the hotel itself: "You are my fame. I am your vacancy."
Her latest novel, Bogeywoman (1999) is the triumph of another style, and another alternate world—but closer to our world than Shamp. The geography is real, the time vague but not mythical.
Ursula Koderer tells the story, first person, of her realization that she is lesbian, of her expulsion from a girl’s camp in Maine, her incarceration in a Baltimore insane asylum at seventeen, her escape from the asylum with Gulaim Zuk (a mysterious Central Asian psychiatrist—"Her body," Ursula tells us, "was similar to Central Asia"), a flight into the Great Dismal Swamp where Zuk disappears, a return to Baltimore to find some songs she wrote in the asylum have become famous. This is a bare sketch; I have omitted weirder items. The novel is punctuated by the phrase "HOW LOVE GOT ME OUT OF THERE," used as a heading within each chapter and as title for the final chapter. It is also the principal line in the asylum songs (performed by a group of inmates who call themselves the Bug Motel).
But Ursula’s language makes everything different, in the way that Shamp’s—swearing "by Chrust"—does. The canonical authorities in this asylum are Sigmund Food and Margaret Meat (and one notes that the psychiatrists—or rather the "dreambox mechanics"—say the same). Those names, like everything in the book, echo the motif of hunger.
Bogeywoman is, among other things, an amazing example of what can be done with voice. It is extremely risky to have a narrator both naïve and strangely knowledgeable, but Ursie’s voice, a composite of common street talk and unique quirks, is flawless. Bogeywoman’s voice establishes a world that is, not only plausible, but unmistakable.
Jaimy Gordon’s language is never the same; she has a different prose for each of her books, from one fiction to the next. Always playful, it is not Joycean. Its playfulness is much more in the vein of Queneau (towards Zazie rather than toward Ulysses). Its literary influences are extremely broad, medieval to baroque to current and including much folk material. (In She Drove Without Stopping, I get here and there, furtively, the idea that she would like to pull her style down a bit and become a novelist-like-the-others, something her exquisite sense of style will always make problematic. John Hawkes faced a similar problem.)
The love that gets Ursula "out of there" is what drives all Jaimy Gordon’s writing. It is love as hunger—love, not without an object, rather with many objects, a world of objects, none of them (nor even all of them together) adequate to that desire." - Keith Waldrop

"Focusing our attention on three of the heirs of Jaimy Gordon’s invention and taking a hint from one of many “honest victuallers”—none other than Henry Fielding—we propose to provide a bill of fare, “which all persons may peruse at their first entrance into the house; and having thence acquainted themselves with the entertainment which they may expect, may either stay and regale with what is provided for them, or may depart to some other ordinary better accommodated to their taste” (Fielding 23). For, if it be true that an author is not “a gentleman who gives a private or eleemosynary treat, but rather one who keeps a public ordinary, at which all persons are welcome for they money,” this author most certainly and literally keeps a good table.
The front-cover of Jaimy Gordon’s latest novel which features a Münch-like mouth spewing forth countless body parts may be construed as doubly programmatic. A promise of foodstuffs and sweet meats galore, expelled as much as ingested, it also makes clear that the provision which we here make is human nature. If food metaphors abound in Bogeywoman, under the aegis of Sigmund Food and Margaret Meat, the quotation by Keith Waldrop on which the book opens points to the higher stakes behind them: “Mere life with its mere hunger” (9). Ridden by sexual appetite, lust for fame, revenge, visibility, or adventure, Gordon’s characters crave for and hunger after ever-receding objects. Nourishment gives way to nurture, a process rather than an end. The premium being on becoming, replenishment and satiation are accordingly barred from Gordon’s Bildungsromanen in which appetite is viewed in spatial terms. Indeed, appetite translates as both energy principle and trajectory. She Drove Without Stopping illustrates this metaphorical transfer, whereby the forces that drive the characters compel them to depart from beaten tracks, to extra-vagate. In proper picaresque fashion, the eponymous hero of Shamp of the City-Solo takes to the road, only to be joined by Jane Turner, She Drove’s would-be reckless heroine. That the two novels sport such a vehicle as a 1949 Dodge respectively christened Wanderlust and The Wayfarer is proof enough that their concern is with the progress of their respective pilgrims, a progress which is a function of their ability to become “the boss[es] of [their] hunger, the chef[s] of [their] starvation” (Bogeywoman 15). From Shipoff, “a Soloist and a Traveller” (10), with “the air of a man who is going places, and as quickly as possible” (12), Shamp learns “how to move in the world” (1). From Camp Chunkagunk, Bogeywoman Ursie Koderer learns that the whole earth is “a feast run amok” (38). From her father, Jane learns that home may not be where the heart is. Equally uprooted and adrift, expectant and famished, Gordon’s characters are being e-ducated, driven out, and led forth. Uncertain whether the terminus is home or hole, location or exile, surfeit or penury, plenum or vacancy, they “tramp a perpetual journey” (Whitman 79).
Jane’s itinerary is encapsulated in the grammatical trajectory of the book. What begins as a first-person narrative veers off page 31 when the third person takes over and Jane realizes that “the more she was Jane, whatever that meant, and she was more Jane every day, the more she got on [her father’s] nerves” (31-32). In an attempt to fend off invisibility, Jane begins by taking her father to task, leaves for Harmonia college, and eventually blasts out of the college dormitory “to take up the solo-life” (151), which she soon gives up to squat in a throwaway house with one Jimmy Fluharty:
'Not for a minute did she believe that Jimmy was an authentic drunk or she herself an authentic tramp. She knew these were merely floorshows whereby each soul made itself visible, rooting up its unspeakable unrest and joining it to a convention the world understood only too well—anything to take an outward shape.(118-119)
Not knowing what shape she is to take, or what she would have ordered, “if love had been a restaurant” (109), Jane alternately holes up and “ride[s] with [her] pink sex forward” (382), adopting various guises to make herself visible until she stumbles unto proof of her existence. The first person is resumed page 370 when all masks are dropped and the narrative steers clear of the analeptic. As Hughbury Shamp puts it, “education services time, ever lying its track in two directions—there and back” (80). All three novels consequently take the form of recollections, hindthoughts. Jane’s troubled sense of self is thus reflected by the shifting tenses, as well as the shifting pronouns and personae. Shamp and Ursie, on the other hand, cling to the first person, flouting their solipsism and extravagance. Taking their cue from the founding babblers and hirsute bards of American literature, from Whitman’s voice, “orotund sweeping and final” (73), Ishmael’s rhapsodic rant, and the boastful cadences of the tall tale, they display the combination of candour and wiliness, flight and fugue which P-Y Pétillon considers to be the hard bottom of American literature. The trick is to “talk unceasingly, for no word is wasted, nor can a word be empty, but even popped off in vain, lights up the point that popped in the lector’s brain” (Shamp 1). Not only do Shamp and Ursie talk unceasingly, they talk buoyantly, bouncily. The elasticity of the syntax and the reliance on consonance, together with the myriad vernacularisms, go a long way towards shaping Gordon’s prose into a feast of words. No sipping or nibbling allowed. Words must be mouthed, chewed, or gobbled. They “multiply through consonants not vowels” for consonants “are the seed of language, the one guarantee of its posterity” (Mandelstam 95). Sentences must be attended to with one’s ears, Gordon’s narrators being louder than others. The orotundity of the narrative voice acts as a reminder of the physiological process conducive to speech. The mouth must be rounded, indeed, for such is the etymological meaning of orotund (ore rotundo), which attempts to do justice to the recurring plosives and rounded vowels Gordon lavishes upon the reader:
“Not Yevlenkovitch, Shipoff said, SHIPOFF, as in shape up or? Allow me to present to you my present project. In the season to come Babaeski will be to your final development as the old glider creaking on the front stoop was to the poecile stoa itself. So clean up your act for philosophy!” (Shamp 58)
Since mastery of the situation is “mastery by the voice, naturellement!” (Shamp 7), the characters’ progress is mirrored by that of their voices. This is especially true of Shamp whose education at the hands and feet of his masters takes the form of lessons in the discursive art. “At seventeen, as yet unimproved by a master” (5), Shamp is gainsaid by one Brakeknot. Unable to reply to the question, “Where were you when? Define yourself fifteen minutes ago!” (9), he loses both face and voice, and determines to be someone somewhere some day, to look for improvement and a retort. His oratorical education draws upon Plato’s eroticised rhetoric, upon the more agonistic disputatio, as well as the ostentatious and altogether festive declamatio. Neo-rhetorical declamation consists of a loose series of juxtaposed purple passages and is improvised in rhapsodic fashion. Gordon’s reworking of a rhetorical exercise which, according to Roland Barthes, departs from the merely deliberative to border on the literary, signals that persuasion has little to do with these hilarious mock-orations that call to mind yet another meaning of the word orotund. The topoi koinoi, that is to say the widely applicable topics orators rely on for subject-matter, are so outlandish as to shift the emphasis from persuasion and relevance to the revolutions and circumvolutions of the characters’ rhapsodic swirlings. Shipoff’s tack, The Calculus on the Recoil, is consistent with the book’s overall strategy. Words are seen to rebound, to reecho, forcing the reader to “dog their effortless pedesis” (73), just as Shamp dogs his masters’ peripatetic philosophical excursions. Phrases regularly recur and serve as a refrain allowing for variation on a given theme. Witness, for example, how the “bogey” of Bogeywoman metamorphoses into “boggy,” “buggy,” how love repeatedly gets Ursie out of there, or how a formula such as “nor can a X be empty” successively accommodates words (S 1), the state you’re in (39), names (86), and eventually assholes (162). It falls to the reader to track down such phrases and take stock of the trajectory underlying Shamp’s “rote ditty” (4) and Ursie’s “complexicated vocabules” (224).
Unsurprisingly, the actio which disappeared with the advent of the printed word and which has to do with all gestures and gesticulations likely to enhance the rhetorical performance comes back with a vengeance. One of Shipoff’s assets is his oculomotor irregularity and Shamp first challenges Dr Analarge by pissing on his linoleum in Rabelaisian fashion. When performing, Gordon’s latter-day rhapsodes perform at festivals. Gordon once confessed to shaping a book towards a ceremony of some kind. The Arslevering Midsummer’s Day Ox-Roast and Colloquium on Polity in Shamp is a case in point. The wedding of Bob and Louise in She Drove is another in that it allows Gordon to cannibalize the mummer’s play and the misrule traditionally associated with the spring equinox or the twelve days of Christmas. Thus Nuncio heralds the entrance of the members of the wedding party in much the same way as the Roomer or Introduction Officer heralds that of the mummers in Soldiers Acting At Christmas. His opening speech is reminiscent of that of Father Christmas, just as Lawyer Nullindeed is an avatar of the doctor who was called upon to cure King George, traditionally wounded in a sword fight with a Saracen (Gassner 30-32).
As Genette observed, it may be assumed that parody was first directed at the epic poem as performed by rhapsodes so that parody may be said to be rhapsody’s daughter and vice versa, given that rhapsody feeds on its offspring even as it nurses it in its breast (27). It should come as no surprise therefore that the wanderings of Gordon’s rhapsodes give rise to delightful parodies of Browne’s prose, Dickinson’s poetry, or Marcus Aurelius’s precepts. Note that Gordon is not new to such practices. The Fall of Poxdown, published in 1972, is a mock epic and Foetid Waters, a parody of the Greek play Philoctetes (since we have not been so lucky as to lay our hands on Gordon’s plays, we are taking Keith Waldrop’s word for it). That she wears her learning lightly is a sign of the conviviality presiding over Gordon’s feast of words. As Michel Jeanneret stated, it was customary for Renaissance banqueters to water down their philosophical wine, as far as table talk was concerned, so as not to intimidate their fellow diners. Gordon’s brand of parody conforms to this pattern. It is convivial and commemorative rather than indigestible and derisive.
Paradoxically enough, parody in Gordon’s work coexists with an emphasis on uniqueness. Shamp thus objects to Shipoff’s borrowings, although he, himself, at times pilfers the latter’s topos:
'He was a man who had not an idea of his own in his life. Fine with him! Instead he rutted and ransacked in the surplus heap under cover of the public yawn, as sure that the plan he wanted would out as though he smelled it, rotting already from delay, behind its binder in the library basement.' (45)
By the same token, Ursie who cherishes a stiff over her own kind and has “every low intention of eating beauty” (83) conceals her inclination on the grounds that she has a sexuality of her own, one that cannot go by any other name than the one she gives it:
'In case you haven’t guessed, I’ve decided to stay a * Unbeknownst, or anyway, unannounced, for the rest of my life. What’s it anybody’s business, anyway? I am what I am, not what you are or they are. That’s why I have to be one-of-a-kind. I don’t dare be a club, for if I were a club I would soon be kicked out of it.'(341)
It is their very solipsism which endows Shamp and Ursie with a representative quality. For “his character is a mythical role which the actor just emerged from the depths to the light plays in the illusion that it is his own and unique, that he, as it were, invented it all himself” (Mann 422-423). Gordon’s self-mythologizing characters unwittingly reenact and celebrate man’s mythical progress, for “life in the myth, life, so to speak, in quotation, is a kind of celebration, in that it is a making present of the past, it becomes a religious act, the performance by a celebrant of a prescribed procedure; it becomes a feast. For a feast is an anniversary, a renewal of the past in the present” (Mann 425). Festive exuberance nevertheless goes hand in hand with desquamation of the self and withdrawal. Shamp eventually holes up, while Jane peels off all former personae, and Ursie is left to wonder whether her lover’s downfall “was all some sumptuous piece of theater she staged for [her] education, or rather for [her] violent graduation” (342). As P-Y Pétillon observed, the counterpoint of the barbaric yawp is post-clamatum vacancy:
I used to sit around Track Kitchen Number Two with a ballpoint and the backs of a few greasy menus trying to make up words, but I had left my pukelele behind and, it was funny, now that I was out of the bughouse and mucking stalls for a living, when I cocked open my mouth, flies flew into it instead of word salad and other buggy stuff swimming out.(Bogeywoman 337)
Ursie eventually lands in the “topsy-turvy racetrack world […], this sometimey escalator of nobodies to the stars” (340), not a bad place to land, she tells us, for one who is but “passing through.” Humbled by the stoic belief that the duration of man’s life is but a point, that diuturnity is unattainable, Gordon’s characters are left to starve or to bethink themselves, as Marcus Aurelius admonished, “of the retreat into the little plot that is thyself” (71). Violent as the characters’ graduation may be, Gordon’s novels of education are programmatically open-ended. The journey takes us from rounded to gaping mouth, from nourishment to astonishment, as the characters look back and take stock, proving that distance, not destination, is where we are at: “Undue Significance a starving man attaches /To Food – / […] Spices fly /In the Receipt – It was the Distance – /Was Savory” (Dickinson 210-211)." - Sandrine Dechaume

Interview with Jaimy Gordon:


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