Renee Gladman - Ontological crisis: everything seems to make some kind of weird sense but nothing ever really does, no dots are connected
Renee Gladman, Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge. Dorothy, a Publishing Project 2013.
“Ah, Ravicka. Where the bookstores are all independent, language swoops through the body, and buildings disintegrate. A city-state in flux and crisis. Belgians know about it. Citizens are disappearing. There’s still good coffee, though it’s the end of the world.” elaine bleakney, the kenyon review
“Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge is the third volume of Renee Gladman’s magnificent, melancholy series about the city-state of Ravicka, or about the architectures of its absence. It is tempting to read the Ravickian books as an extended allegory—of architecture itself, perhaps, except that architecture is already half-allegorical, its every element raised to prefigure whatever meanings can make their way to them. If any can. In Ravicka, meanings—indeed most contact of any kind—remain in abeyance, building, in absentia, the constitutive negative spaces of the narrative. There is a plot; it lays out zones of sheer ambience. Experiences, of which there are many, unfold as a redolent lingering in the structures of immateriality, the radical realities of the insubstantial. Gladman is a philosopher of architecture, though not that of buildings. Rather, she thinks (and writes) the drifts, partitions, and immobilities of identity, affect, communication, the very possibility of being human. Profound, compelling—haunting, even—the story of Ravicka is astonishingly ours.” lyn hejinian
Read an interview with Renee Gladman at BOMB.
From the sky there was no sign of Ravicka. Yet, I arrived...—Event Factory
I recalled my view from the plane, moments before we began our descent into Ravicka, seeing the portioned land, but disbelieving that a city was below me.—Event Factory
Where is Ravicka? Maybe this will serve as an answer: go spread a map of the world on that table over there. The coffee table with a top made from a slab of log. Yes, the card table whose legs tuck under it like a sleeping cat’s. The desk. That is what I mean. Search the map for Ravicka. You may have trouble seeing it on the map. If you ever feel like giving up, remember the words of the unnamed “linguist-traveler” who narrates Event Factory: “What one couldn’t see wasn’t always what was there.” You may have to get closer to the map to find Ravicka—either that or farther away. Stand on a chair or pin the map to a wall in a neighboring room. Look at it through binoculars.
If you find Ravicka on the map, throw the map away. The map is not the territory, no matter what the cynics might tell you. It will keep you from ever finding Ravicka. You will never believe in the city unless you become a part of it.
Before you arrive in Ravicka you'll have to read Renee Gladman's novels set there: Event Factory (2010), The Ravickians (2011), and Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge (2013). Event Factory is exactly what it sounds like; its narrator is a foreigner who sees events happening around her but has difficulty understanding and entering into them. The Ravickians is narrated by "The Great Ravickian Novelist" Luswage Amini. It presents us with a day in the life of Amini as she passes through the city, attends a poetry reading, and goes out on the town afterward. Amini's difficulty traversing the city reveals that even native Ravickians have a hard time navigating the space of Ravicka. The third and most recent book in the series, Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge, is a series of enclosures from the eponymous character musing on architecture, language, and narrative.
Each subsequent novel is narrated by a character pivotal in the novel before it: in Event Factory, the memory of Luswage Amini spurs the narrator to the outskirts of the city where she gains a new perspective on Ravicka, and in The Ravickians, Ana Patova is a enigmatic presence in the life of Amini, who spends a good deal of time missing her and thinking on their shared past.
No one not from Ravicka, not even the map-illiterate or the carto-agnostic, would mistake Ravicka for a real country. In an interview with BOMBlog, Gladman says that Ravicka is product of her “monolinguism.” She wanted another language, so she invented one with her partner. She says that “within [their] exchange was the space of the city, questions of the built environment, of community, occupancy. You think long enough about something and it comes to life in some alterity adjacent to your own.” And what more does it take to make a world than space and language to reverberate within it?
I couldn't separate what the book was about from how it looked to write write it.
—Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge
Renee Gladman is a novelist, a poet, a maker of projects. She is the editor and publisher of an experimental literature press, Leon Works, but her novels are published by Dorothy, a publishing project founded by Danielle Dutton in order to publish writing that sits in the space between poetry and fiction. According to Dutton, before starting the press she “had to wait for an occasion, a moment when [her] desire to publish encountered an actual cultural lack.” As it so happened, Gladman’s Event Factory was the novel whose creation revealed the space that needed filling.
While Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge feels like the kind of novel a poet would write, less a narrative than an accretion of ideas in book form, Event Factory and The Ravickians both have a narrative through-line of sorts, which propels the reader through the book in fits and starts. Unlike most other works of narrative fiction, however, the meaning does not reveal itself as one reads. Instead, meaning gathers in eddies along the way, swirling around a central image or idea as the reader floats past. The effect is rather like devouring a series of poems without pausing to reflect.
In that place, whenever you opened your eyes, the yellow sang out to you.
While Ravicka is radically other, it is not always so. In Ravicka people take taxis, drink coffee, and buy books. But they also put their hands in the laps of strangers, eat paper, and live in buildings that migrate. The most striking feature of Ravicka is its air. When you get to Ravicka, tell me if the sky looks yellow. Visitors to Ravicka say that the sky—no, the very air—is yellow. In The Ravickians, Amini says that the air is not yellow but dahar, which keeps being translated into English as yellow. So it seems the only thing to do is send someone over to Ravicka to see the air first hand and tell us whether the air is really yellow or some other color. If the air is yellow, just send a message saying YES. It is probably best not to bring colors or translations of colors into your message at all.The color of the Ravickian air lends it a presence usually lacking in airs. In a sense, there is no space that is empty in Ravicka; it is all filled with a yellow medium. But like most things in Ravicka, this presence is paradoxical. According to the linguist-traveler, the yellow air is “heavy with loss.”
And what has been lost?
After years of a crisis—of faith, of space, of architecture—only an eighth of them remain, and the status of those who remain is tenuous; as Ana Patova tells us in Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge, “People kept saying other people were fleeing the city and pointing to themselves.” So even though all open space is full of yellow, it is a melancholy yellow.
“I burned it, Luswage,” I told her. “Why is it still here?” She arched her back climbing out of the tub, then burned her building down: “I stood in the ashes, I swear to you.”
—Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge
In Ravicka buildings are on fire and then they are not and never have been. I wouldn’t want you to think that there are parts of Ravicka where causality runs backward. But I have insinuated it, haven’t I? Of course it is not really a matter of time but of perception. As I said, it is all just a matter of representation.
But still there are moments where figurative language is used and then seems to be taken literally. In Event Factory the narrator asks a Ravickian about where all the smoke is coming from when she really means to ask about silence, explaining that “silence is not something that moves visibly from one place to another . . . I was saying smoke and he knew I did not mean it.” A few pages later, however, the streets are filled with smoke which stings the narrator’s eyes.In the face of such instability, it would be easy to say that Ravicka means nothing. Just as easily one could assume that the narrators of the novels mean everything, and the city of Ravicka is actually science fictional. Even the linguist-traveler has to remind herself that she is not on another planet by recalling how inexpensive it was to fly to Ravicka.
To take Ravicka at face value in order to make it mean something (however useless that meaning might be) is certainly tempting, but we must be wary of doing so. Ravicka presents us with the chaos before it coalesces into meaning.
If only traveling were about showing off your language skills, if only it did not also demand a certain commitment of body communication, of outright singing and dancing—I think I would be absolutely global by now. In Ravicka I was barely urban.
The language was more a drama than a script.
—Ana Patova Crosses a BridgeIn Ravicka, talking about architecture is also dancing about architecture. Characters do complicated bodily folds, reach down and touch their ankles, and use each other’s bodies as focal points for the purpose of communication. Not only does this make for a more intimate language (the word intercourse in its multivalent meanings comes to mind), but it makes language dependent on space in a way that it isn’t when it is confined to vocalizations and marks on paper. Language becomes visible, a part of the milieu, and this makes the loss of Ravickians, of buildings, of places all the more traumatic. The loss of things changes the language, and the loss of language makes space impassable. No wonder then that Ana Patova imagines “a block of streets, off limits to our living, and within this block breathed the real body of our city.”
The crisis made me give up architecture, drawing up plans for building, and sat me roughly in this chair from which I did not leave for years. It was ten years, the despair, and it was five days, and it was your childhood...
—Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge
The crisis happened in our eyes and in our imaginations, how we made sense of what we saw, the flinty bridges between, but there was nothing we could do about our eyes...
—Ana Patova Crosses a BridgeIf Gladman’s novels ever feel like allegory it is when characters speak of the “crisis” unfolding in their city. If Ravicka has a 24-hour news channel, you can bet it is filled with wall-to-wall coverage of the crisis. The effects of the crisis are many: fleeing citizens, black smoke filling the yellow air, the loss of language, increasing self-imposed isolation, general confusion.
The linguist-traveler reminds us that “in any city, where there is a crisis, one always encounters those who deny the occurrence of that very crisis, and eventually one finds out about the activists; but there is also a group that is equally as persuasive as the two above, just not interviewed as much—this group called ‘the artists.’” Perhaps we ought to put Gladman in that less-often interviewed category: she is the artist presenting us with an allegory of our time of perpetual crisis.
At one point, Ana Patova tells us she and her friends began carrying a huge scroll of paper around with them and that on it “everyone was always marking off things they’d finished—books they’d read, books they’d written, meetings held—yet sitting in this empty feeling. The whole time, empty, and waiting for the city to pick up again . . .” These marks, she tells us, are meant to “indicate change, a change that somehow talked about nothing.” I wonder whether Ana Patova ever tore off a piece of that scroll to bring home with her, where she could keep abreast of her friends’ lives without leaving the house.
We never saw a building move but were always picking ourselves up from the ground and could rarely find the place we were looking for on the day that we were looking for it...
—Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge
“Ravicka is not well, and its recovery has everything to do with architecture.”
—The RavickiansThe Ravickian have a unique relationship to architecture. As Ana Patova says, "[Ravickians talk] about buildings as if they were animals." I wonder whether the crisis hinges on this sensitivity to what in other cultures are considered inanimate objects taking up space. When you feel architecture acutely perhaps it is impossible to be at peace in a city.
Luswage Amini remembers a time when "one did not walk among buildings wondering how long he or she might be able to do such a thing." She mourns the time when she and her friends walked the city together. She mourns the loss of familiar places. She mourns architecture. As a novelist, she says she "never wrote about it explicitly. [She] wrote about people in cities, people on trains, but could never bear the daunting topic of structure."
As Amini makes her way from her house to a poetry reading in The Ravickians, she encounters “rubble near the Opera House” and convinces herself that the rubble is not evidence of Ravicka’s decline but has been trucked in from somewhere else. In the rubble are film cans marked with non-Ravickian names, confirming her suspicions. But like a conspiracy theorist denying the obvious truth, she continues to investigate the pile of rubble to find out “how many . . . took part in these strange events,” piling and cataloging the film cans.
In the end she has “eleven stacks of ten documentaries amid rubble with enough distance between each to make the whole scene look collegiate and strange.” She explains her actions by saying, "If it is possible to chip away at something while at the same time building it then that is what I have been trying to do." Chipping away at architecture in her mind, she reveals a metaphor, stacking up eleven high-rises filled with the moments of people long gone.
Golden grasses and yellow air do not make a blur of things, as one who has never seen this sight might think they would. It is amazing the way objects bearing such likeness separate themselves in Ravicka—since when you wake from having been asleep outside, you will want to discern things immediately. The shapes engulfing you. Even when there are only two shapes: sky and grasses.
—The RavickiansIf during your visit to Ravicka, you feel the city too much with you, take a ride out to Hilayli and lay down in the tall grass. For the Ravickian, “Hilayli is in that part of your mind you would call country if you ever thought about it.” If country is a part of the mind, maybe city is as well. Perhaps Ravickian life is more about how space occupies the mind than how the body occupies space. Or maybe it’s more a tug-of-war between the mind and body over space. Laying out in the field in Hilayli, you open your eyes, and your mind begins to split what your body knew as one into “grass” and “sky.”
Amini believes she could never “bear the daunting topic of structure,” but she has been imposing it on Ravicka all along in the form of language.
What you did with where your body went, how you wrapped words around it, calling it something that might be useful to others, who also did not know space, which was everyone, was of an order inconsequential to the space you inhabited.
—Ana Patova Crosses a BridgeRemember when you were a child and first experienced yourself as an independent being taking up space in a world of objects and other beings? Remember feeling momentarily unmoored at the prospect? That is what being a Ravickian is like. To be aware of one’s own relation to everything else all the time, to realize that one is part of the architecture of the city, to know that the architecture is constantly in flux: that is the crisis. To be intensely aware of effects of time on buildings and people and places is to experience mono no aware as a permanent state of being. It is to live inside the melancholia of things.
I’d walk the streets and collect signs of the despair and hang these signs in other parts of the city . . . Was “the crisis” the act of returning things to their original location but forgetting and never knowing where things came from?
—Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge
Ravicka works better as memory than as a reading experience. While reading about Ravicka, the mind is busy trying to discover the spatial relations between objects and/or sentences in flux and to understand the inner lives of the people who live in the midst of such instability. Reading Ravicka is hard work. Remembering Ravicka, on the other hand, is much easier. Once the half-formed space of the city is introduced into our minds, it becomes a map we carry inside us—a map we can pull out from time-to-time, lay over the apparent world, and search for the little arrow that says, “You are here.”- Chris Fletcher
Renee Gladman, The Ravickians. Dorothy, a Publishing Project 2010.
The second volume of Gladman’s Ravicka trilogy continues the author’s profound meditation upon translation and the ephemeral. The Ravickians narrates the day-long odyssey of Luswage Amini, the Great Ravickian Novelist, who journeys through the city to attend the reading of an old friend. Where the earlier volume, Event Factory, explores Ravicka from the outside, via a visitor’s attempt to understand and interpret that city’s irreducible strangeness, The Ravickians faces the problem of translation from the perspective of an insider who struggles, throughout her account, to make plain the political and personal crises of Ravickian life that she knows to be untranslatable.
“An entire novel about a reclusive great writer trying to get to a poetry reading: OK, swoon. I wish Bolaño could have read this.” elaine bleakney,
Read an interview with Gladman.
Gladman welcomes us back to the city-state of Ravika, the site of her 2010 novel, The Event Factory, where paved roads are stories and the lives of buildings and their inhabitants are so closely entwined that “the despair” causing the city’s districts to erode also endangers the very language of its poets and writers, making translation impossible. Against a backdrop of creeping insularity and decay, the novelist Luswage Amini sets out to attend a reading by the great Zàoter Limici, moving through ghostly penthouses and strange shadows cast by the unfamiliar dialects of strangers. But the simple act of strolling puts Amini in mind of the immortal work, I Thought of Architecture, written by Amini’s greatest love. This is merely prelude to the “path of words” Limici intends to cut through the endangered city with poems. What sounds conceptually overweighted in summary isn’t in the book; Gladman’s talent for linguistic architecture makes for a supple, tight promenade through heady ideas whose appeal rests on the implicit connection it draws between a people, their language, and the shape of communication. A novel set inside a poem, the work grasps at the heart of an imaginary people, deftly illustrating their inner life and looming stagnation in little more than 150 pages.
- publishers weekly
Ravicka's great novelist, Luswage Amini, hasn't left home in a week. Dripping cream in cup after cup of coffee, burrowed into the Poet of Architecture's new translation, she lives only for the click of the courier's bicycle, and who could blame her? Outside, Nothing accumulates. Her city is a colony collapsing. Ravicka, Luswage's home for all of her fifty-five years, has lost nearly a million of its citizens. Though the trains and busses run, they're empty. The buildings stand but they're locked, no one home. Every sound must cross a field of silence. So, indeed, why leave the house? Because Zàoter Limici, her old friend, will be reading from his new book of poems at Vonzy Hall, and Ana Patova, her long-time, almost-lover will be there.
So begins The Ravickians, Renee Gladman's second meditation on the human-nature of architecture. Where last year's Event Factory was the travel narrative of a single tourist, The Ravickians is the assemblage of half-a-dozen or more consciousnesses, their stray thoughts, memories, poems, and conversations. To be sure, the first half of the book, the first of its three sections, belongs to Luswage Amini. The words, with the exception of two jarring, bracketed stage directions, are entirely hers. We know of Ravicka's silence, for example, primarily because of her ironic refutation of it:
Ravicka is not at all silent as they say it is. When I am in the city I hear everything. When on Bodi I can hear voices from Shumgater, two blocks away. When those voices cease I hear the Balşa wind. Very late at night, a single car speeds through the streets. I hear its engines shifting gears. I imagine this nightlife of the driver, living through insomnia no doubt. And I find that the questions I send out to her about why she is here come whirling back at me. Who are you with? Who are you ever with? Repeatedly. So Ravicka is not at all silent.
Ravicka is a container always already filled, even if the substance with which it is filled is absence itself. It's a kind of paradox: the city is not silent but its few sounds point to the relative lack of sound. Compare the sleepless motorist to a pre-decay Friday night, and you'll understand that the timbre of the single sound is tempered by the absence of every other sound possible. By refusing to admit the silence of the streets, Amini focuses on the sounds that remain, without either addressing or extinguishing the not-heard at their periphery.
The effect is reversed with respect to language. Rather than the lone survivor in a field of empty, the untranslatable should be the lone empty in a field of text:
If you are engaged in a translation and discover that a quality you need to convey does not exist in your language, the language into which you are moving, do not pick the next best thing. Sometimes you will have to put a "0" there; this will indicate a hole....
This is not new: you need nothing to see something, which is the theory behind white space.
Of course, without something, nothing is all you have. Would Ravick translate itself entirely into zeros if the ambient noise of its populace were snuffed? Surely, the Balşa wind would still blow, the buildings of the city would continue to stand, but without Ravickians to interact with them, the city itself would cease to be.
Ravicka is a country of interlocking and interdependent parts. Subtly, meanderingly—"In the way it is possible to find the place you are looking for by simply moving about outside"—Gladman draws analogies between these many parts: the dahar light expresses a skyline like language expresses thought, a child is to an adult as an adult is to a building, trains connect your now-body to your then-body in the same way a codeless note tracks a stale love's progress. "The bus is so familiar it is a person to me," Amini says, "and these streets we travel our conversations."
Where the Ravickian world is criss-crossed and stacked, mapped and re-mapped with these architecturo-human concepts, the novel itself performs a kind of structural backflip. In the early pages, Luswage has our ear. The Ravicka we see is built entirely of her observations, recollections, and fears. Despite the incongruous stage directions, we have one narrator, one perspective, and there's little thought of a world outside. This private intimacy is pluralized and made public in the second section. Zàoter's poetry reading, though essentially a monologue, carries with it the echo of the hall, the blinding lights, and the feeling of an audience perceiving it.
In both of these early sections, the attention is directed at you, the reader alone, and you, the reader as audience member. The characters in the third section, however, speak only to one another. As the Ravickian literati walk djor bleje,
an elaborate and collective undertaking that ensues at the conclusion of a social event... the route of which is determined by a set of rules that shift according to the hour, to whether an older or younger person is leading, to the level of precipitation in the air...
their unattributed, em-dashed conversations overlap. You read these final twelve scenes from the perspective of the forgotten one in a crowd of friends. The conversation volleys back and forth between a half-dozen core speakers, but the air around them feels thick with other, unhailed hangers-on. Lefits, the club where they stop for cheese and wine, is clearly packed with people we never see. When Ana Patova and Luswage Amini sneak off to discuss their thirty year not-relationship—The Bridge, as they call it—it feels like you are their only witness. You have to wonder, though, how many other, unhailed watchers are crossing this bridge? Unnamed, unattended-to, is the feeling of their possibility essentially a ‘0', a hole, the kind you'd insert in a translation?The production of these holes is one of the most amazing things Gladman is able to do with The Ravickians. Had she merely described them, merely enumerated the disappeared, the fled, qualified the lack of laughter in the street with the revving of an engine, the effect would have been poetic, even meaningful, but it would have failed to convey the dimension of these absences. Ana Patova used "the term ‘Installation'... instead of the more familiar ‘Chapter' to section her book," and The Ravickians works like this too. From the characters and the setting Gladman builds an environment, and then from section to section, with each change in perspective, she changes your position within it. Now we're on the train, look here, now we're in the auditorium, look here, hurry up we're going to the bridge, do you see the blinking lights? More than a novel, The Ravickians is a kind of curated environment, one built of the culture, language, and architecture of its people, but one that recognizes as well that the reader's perspective need not be omniscient, that the reader's point of view can be directed, that the reader can be pulled into the fictive space and made to occupy the stage as an absence or an extra. - Tom DeBeauchamp
The second volume of a trilogy of novels exploring the crumbling, war-torn imaginary country of Ravicka, The Ravickians is less an exploration of the people and culture of Ravicka than it is a breathtaking book-length meditation on loss. The book moves through what it means to be lost, to get lost, to lose connection with your fellow humans and surroundings. This is all done in a brief novel divided into three parts: 1) a first person account of a day spent wandering by The Great Ravickian Novelist Luswege Amini; 2) a poetry reading that same day given by Amini friend Zäoter Limici; and 3) 52 pages in twelve sections of unascribed dialogue spoken during a night out in the broken down capitol city of Ravicka that includes Amini, Limici, other writer colleagues and some new characters not mentioned earlier in the text.This may sound somewhat disjointed or tough, especially the dialogue, and even given Gladman’s clear plain prose some of the dialogue is impossible to follow, but all of it is tied together through Gladman’s constant complex return to absence and loss. And it’s not just different kinds of loss or absence experienced by Amini in the novel’s longest segment but loss as intimate as a loss of words that shutters a conversation between strangers or as widescreen as the violent destruction of architecture. Architecture is a more readily apparent ongoing concern than loss in the book–characters are obsessed with the architecture of Ravicka, write about it, and define themselves against it–but the surface play of dwelling on the decaying infrastructure of Ravicka is less important than loss when it comes to an idea and an act revisited again and again in the text as story and as performance. I’ll get to “performance” in a second but first, as story, loss dominates both the day narrated by Amini and the writing in the poems presented in the novel’s second part. One example of a two-fold loss happens when Amini visits a local bookstore she likes only to discover that, in the alphabetized bookstore, all of section A is missing, allegedly sold to a collector. Since Amini’s books fall under A this is a loss for both her and the bookstore, one she wonders at:
When there is so little left you do not give it all to one; you fight to keep that thing in the mainstream. What could be worth that kind of sacrifice, literally ridding your house of its first step? My upbringing prevented me from asking [the bookseller] though Hans read the accusation on my face. “It will come back,” he stammered.Loss gets encountered by Amini throughout the first section, and maybe the most compelling section is when she loses herself, purposely, boarding a train with no destination in mind and riding it until the last stop, then wandering into a large field of tall grass, lying down, and losing herself to sleep. And it isn’t so much that Gladman is trying to present a thesis about loss as absence is refracted through the prism of the three-part book. Another important loss is the loosening of a decades-long relationship between Amini and Ana Patova, a relationship now mostly conducted by a courier who brings Amini messages in languages she cannot decipher. There are more examples, but you get the idea; the pleasure of reading this book isn’t in its characters or story but in how Gladman keeps returning to loss in dozens of interlocking ways.
Nothing comes back as itself.
Nothing comes back as itself.
As for performance: the second and third parts of the book are performances by Gladman and her characters that give a voice to the loss Amini encounters during her wandering. In the second section, poet Limici reads muted, oblique elegies to the loss of buildings and monuments:
It’s the final section of the book, though, that’s at once both the most frustrating and the most audacious, compelling, and by the end of the book terrifying. At first, because the dialogue is completely unascribed it becomes clear who’s lost: you, the reader. This works great as a concept but doesn’t initially seem like enough to justify over 50 pages of stuff like this:
-You’ve awakened ZAt first this may seem daunting but eventually the partial or minor losses of the character’s lives re-enter the book in a massive, chilling way that they can barely comprehend, much less articulate, and are helpless to do anything about but bear witness. This is all Amini and Limici can ultimately do, and it’s also all you can do as the book progresses more by accumulation than by narrative arc. The novel and the various things that happen in it are so expertly laid out by Gladman and so compelling moment by moment that even if you might have to have patience to fit the different fragments of loss and language together, it’s a novel whose theme and variations are worth bearing witness to. - Nicholas Grider
-No, Ana Patova, I have not been sleeping
-The sun cheese speaks to him
-All this night I have had intense horizontal energy
-And this table is on the verge of dissolve
-And we are
-And this is
-No, Ana Patova, I have not been sleeping
-The sun cheese speaks to him
-All this night I have had intense horizontal energy
-And this table is on the verge of dissolve
-And we are
-And this is
Ah, Ravicka. Where the bookstores are all independent, language swoops through the body, and buildings disintegrate. A city-state in flux and crisis. Belgians know about it. Citizens are disappearing. There’s still good coffee, though it’s the end of the world.
In her first novel of Ravicka, Event Factory, Renee Gladman constructs the city from the outside. Our guide is a linguist-traveler fluent in Ravic, the native language. She moves us through the city, using the word “yellow” to describe the air, a sickness in the air, and the emptiness suffusing Ravickian architecture. Architecture, we learn, is Ravicka’s at-risk ecology. The structures are massive, sublime, and shifty. Something is wrong; everything is OK. Our guide is nameless and perpetually walled-off, trying to read Ravicka’s ills by walking the city. She can’t seem to arrive, second-guessing at every turn her ability to report fully.
If you’ve ever fallen for another city and felt yourself bereft and flooded—welcome to Ravicka. What makes us most welcome here is Gladman’s linguist-traveler, able and at-sea as she navigates the city:
But there was a gesture I was to make upon entering a place that was already peopled, something between ‘hello,’ ‘sorry,’ and ‘congratulations I’m here,’ and I could not remember what it was. As subtly as I could, I bent here and there trying to jog my memory: was I to do a shake, a roundoff? I kept thinking, ‘How great it would be to enter.’ If only traveling were about showing off your language skills, if only it did not also demand a certain commitment of body communication, of outright singing or dancing—I think I would be absolutely global by now.This kind of travel—running on uncertainty, fluency, and vulnerability—makes Event Factory wildly engaging. Gladman’s linguist-traveler puts in mind another rare contemporary travelogue, Awayward by Jennifer Kronovet. (A disclosure: Kronovet is a friend of mine.) In Awayward, a linguist-traveler from New York City named Jennifer learns Chinese. She goes there to live. Where reportage and narrative fail, poetry fills in. She writes:
There is architectureGladman’s linguist-traveler wears a related translation-exhaustion (wonder-agony?) as she presses herself to interpret Ravicka for us, knowing full well that she can’t know. She seeks a companion (lady preferred) to help/make out with her. Some good prospects show up, including a salsa dancer in a skyscraper. No keepers, though. She can’t get her footing, entering bakeries is very complicated, and the friendly hotel concierge disappears. She’s hungry, lost, and reading. We’re reading. Where is Ravicka? The map keeps changing. What’s wrong with Ravicka? No one can or will say. The city center doesn’t reveal and field trips involving possibly sexy informants prove nothing. But something clicks when she heads toward the mountains to ask Luswage Amini, the “Great Ravickian Novelist,” what the hell is going on. In doing so, she finds an answer—a lovely and untidy one—and introduces the narrator of the trilogy’s enticing second novel, The Ravickians.
and there is your view
of architecture and then
there is the house you can’t
leave: Comparison House
brought to you by English.
The Ravickians takes place in one day, a day that opens with Luswage Amini deciding to go to her old friend Zàoter’s poetry reading. She’s a recluse, sending out notes to Zàoter and her former lover, Ana Patova, by courier. She carefully considers her departure. Getting anywhere in Ravicka involves, we learn, delaying arrival. “I’m not sure if I’ve ever just gone anywhere,” Amini admits. An entire novel about a reclusive great writer trying to get to a poetry reading: OK, swoon. I wish Bolaño could have read this.
There is much to love in Amini’s character, so fully realized. Sort of Sontaggy, or what I imagine the Colombian artist Doris Salcedo to be like: brilliant, full of longing, depressed—Ravicka becomes a different variety of the untranslatable in Amini’s voice. It’s the voice of the ultimate literary insider, steeped in all she’s internalized while holed up in her apartment with what I imagine are walls made of many, many books. Moving outside of her interior means moving into language, its performance (which in Ravicka is something like sudden bursts of Merce Cunningham). Amini has much to say about being understood by people outside:
But why talk about the air here if this is a translation you are reading? I will tell you about it and you will read me saying the word “yellow” and think to yourself science fiction. Well, perhaps I do have a complaint for my translators, especially moving from Ravic to English. Why when I say dahar do you say ‘yellow’? I know that word. The air here is not yellow. It is dahar (yellow). If you are engaged in a translation and discover that a quality you need to convey does not exist in your language, the language into which you are moving, do not pick the next best thing. Sometimes you will have to put a “0” there; this will indicate a hole.Thankfully, the novel isn’t peppered with “0.” It could have gone that way. But The Ravickians is Amini’s, and Gladman’s concern is for delivering her fragmented meditations on language, translation, city life, connection, and desire without typographical hula-hooping. The linguist-traveler of the first novel gets her wish: Amini speaks for Ravicka’s ills. The narrative shatters into a firework of other voices once she reaches Zàoter’s poetry reading. When it shatters, we’re ready: Gladman has oriented us. We find Amini there.
And where are we? On a communal walk in a great, imperiled city. (Did I mention that social events in Ravicka end with a group walk that “is made toward a new geography”?) The Ravickians closes (and opens) with an allusion to a book from the United States by “the Poet of Architecture,” translated by another Ravickian, Sirin Cucek. The book has transfixed literary Ravickians. (All Ravickians may be literary: perhaps this is further evidence we’re reading “science fiction”?)
Amini speaks to Cucek about “the Poet of Architecture” in a hallowed tone, reciting a line from the poet: “the exactitude and the ocean beside it.” (Please let this get totally Joycean and refer to a living American poet, I hoped.)
Google answered: the line Amini cites is by Melissa Buzzeo, from What Began Us—a book of poems published by Renee Gladman’s press, Leon Works. Beautiful: the idea of a publisher supporting a book of poetry by embedding a line of it in her own novel. (A line in English translated into Ravic then back to English, in the world of the novel.)
Will Sirin Cucek, Ravicka’s great translator, narrate Gladman’s third novel about Ravicka (tentatively due in the fall of 2013)? “You have transformed us with your translations,” Amini says to Cucek after Zàoter’s poetry reading. To be transformed by translation: however the third novel shapes, it’s clear that Gladman will be moving us further into this idea, complicating it, thankfully, again. - Elaine Bleakney
„A 'linguist-traveler' arrives by plane to Ravicka, a city of yellow air in which an undefined crisis is causing the inhabitants to flee. Although fluent in the native language, she quickly finds herself on the outside of every experience. Things happen to her, events transpire, but it is as if the city itself, the performance of life there, eludes her. Setting out to uncover the source of the city’s erosion, she is beset by this other crisis—an ontological crisis—as she struggles to retain a sense of what is happening.
Event Factory is the first in a trilogy of novels Renee Gladman is writing about the invented city-state of Ravicka, a foreign 'other' place fraught with the crises of American urban experience, not least the fundamental problem of how to move through the world at all.“
“Renee Gladman has always struck me as being a dreamer—she writes that way and the dreaming seems to construct the architecture of the world unfolding before our reading eyes. In Event Factory the details of her dream gleam specifically yet they bob on the surface of a deeper wider abyss we all might be becoming engulfed in. It has the strange glamour of Kafka’s Amerika, this book, but the narrator, lusty and persuasive, is growing up.” - Eileen Myles
“In Renee Gladman’s extraordinary Event Factory, the world in all its languaged variousness adumbrates a ‘yellow-becoming’ map for our deepest internal spelunkings, a map we don’t dare do without as we negotiate, along with our intrepid narrator, the world of Ravicka, the sprawling city, where, we might say, to borrow from Gladman, ‘nothing happens, nothing happens, then everything is ‘said’ to happen . . .’ and where we might also say, to borrow from Beckett, the magnifying and minifying mirrors have been shattered and the body has, yes, ‘vanished in the havoc of its images.’” Laird Hunt
„Event Factory might be considered the field notes of a polylinguist, one conversant in at least seven languages, and many dialects within them; an estranged stranger in a stranger land, that is, Ravicka, an invisible city, a city wavering between indivisibility and its opposite; all rendered by Gladman, a connoisseur of the sentence, in pellucid prose reminiscent of Italo Calvino's cosmic comedies, in service to a refractive narrative sometimes mirroring the disjunctive absurdities of Ben Marcus’s fiction, sharing Marcus’s interest in how language alters reality, how inquiries into internal identity and external reality, and their converse, lead to investigations of borders and their trespass. As with any city, seedy or not, and especially with a dystopic city, Ravicka has a dark side, an underbelly, where the consequence of language misuse is sometimes violence, where you can even lose a limb for failing to do as the Ravickians do; it’s a city where a "conspiracy of growths" may or may not be subsuming streets with new streets, or something else entirely, where one is required to perform bizarre rituals, like entering a new place sideways in order to show that it’s your first time entering it, like having to express a particular kind of apology with “three minutes of deep-knee bends.” The novella, the first in a trilogy (in keeping with its project to both undermine and pay homage to fabulist tropes) is as much a reverie on the city, of its malleability, its indecipherability, its irreducibility, as it is an inquiry into the limits of language, while also reflecting on the mutability of the self, how the self is changed by its surroundings, by the objects it engages with. More “travel-logos” than mere diary, Event Factory is a profound study of the architecture of being, knowledge, memory, and desire.“ – John Madera
„An unnamed protagonist arrives in a fictional city-state called Ravicka where she meets people, has adventures, and then departs without, seemingly, really having been anywhere or accomplished anything. The opening epigraph from Samuel Beckett serves well as a compass : "something has to happen, to my body. . . which never. . . wished for anything, in its tarnished universe, except for the mirrors to shatter. . . the magnifying, the minifying, and to vanish in the havoc of its images." Magnifying and minifying aptly describe the challenges encountered by both narrator and reader. A visit to Ravicka becomes a tour of a land of smoke and mirrors, a Through the Looking Glass experience in which the story is as much a shape-shifter as is the sexual self. Its hard-to-pin-down quality doesn't, however, make Renee Gladman's short novel Event Factory a flawed narrative.
In Ravicka, the color yellow is pervasive; sometimes tender or empty, at others, more a green or brown. When Ravickians are healthy, they breathe yellow in and out. It's the color of the sun, but perhaps not our sun, although as the narrator reminds us, this isn't a different world than ours, since she arrived here on an airplane and that's also how she will leave. How Ravickians themselves leave remains a mystery, even though they appear to be abandoning Ravicka faster than the narrator can "stamp it" with her "tourism." (101)
The narrator is a linguist. She speaks seven languages, including several dialects of Ravic, but discovers that speaking the language isn't sufficient: "If only traveling were about showing off your language skills, if only it did not also demand a certain commitment of body communication, of outright singing and dancing--I think I would be absolutely global by now." (42) She may arrive accidentally (or not), but once in Ravicka, she embarks on numerous quests. What she's looking for changes as she changes location (place is primordial here; time more incidental, except when it's time to eat or "time to fuck." 23). She is more tourist than scholar. In search of both the Old City and Downtown, where she expects to find skyscrapers (after all she's seen them on postcards and from windows), she's led astray by false directions, as well as by erroneous and discarded maps. She seeks architecture and, above all else, what she calls "convivium." (36) She finds and then loses her guide and lover Dar. She also searches for the Ravickian literary masterpiece, Matlatli Doc, hoping it will lead her to its author, and through her, a better understanding of Ravicka.
Matlatli Doc, with its title that's almost an alliteration of Melville's Moby Dick, "is famous for its pace: nothing happens, nothing happens, then everything is 'said' to happen though nothing happens around that saying, then the book ends, and throughout it all there is this shouting." (86) Substitute "gesturing" for "shouting" and this synopsis pretty nicely describes Event Factory itself. Ravic, the language spoken in Ravicka looks vaguely Slavic. The fact that its Old City has been in existence for seven hundred years, brings to mind Krakow, Poland which not long ago celebrated its 750th anniversary. Ravicka also carries traces of Ursula Le Guin's Gethen and Winter from The Left Hand of Darkness. Words like pareis (29) and concepts such as "inswept by time" (47) are particularly reminiscent of Le Guin. Other books and other imagined locations resonate here as well, such as Haruki Murakami's Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World and the Tokyo of David Mitchell's number9dream.
Many of the features of Gladman's prose have been borrowed from her prose-poetry and the author often seems to be thinking about poetry as much as anything else. For example, the narrator muses: "I meant 'silence,' but silence is not something that moves visibly from one place to another. You simply cannot use the word this way, even in Ravic. I was saying smoke and he knew I did not mean it, but whether he knew what I actually did mean was hard to say." (70) Renee Gladman, the poet, might just as well be describing her poetics.
Event Factory's plot is summed up in its opening lines: "From the sky there was no sign of Ravicka. Yet, I arrived; I met many people." (11) Very little that happens between the narrator's arrival and her departure is causally related. Almost everything that occurs, except for language and ritual gestures, could have happened in any order. Nothing changes, other than that Ravicka continues to empty out. There is no real plot nor character development. Characters don't stick around long, with the exception of the narrator and Simon, the singing hotel/ motel receptionist without whom "there was no center. There was no hotel . . . . without him, it was a different place." (38) Ravicka may be, in the final analysis, simply a metaphor for life, where we, tourist-linguists, find ourselves for a short while, because "the plane . . . had landed and not yet taken off." (18)“ - Paula Koneazny
"Event Factory, by Renee Gladman, is a devious little science fiction book about a woman who visits a fictional city called “Ravicka”—which may also be a planet—where only commonplace banalities occur and everyone is uncomfortable and mystified. It’s a reticent gem of poise and subtle humor, and, at only 126 pages, it punches—or, more accurately, frowns—way above its weight.
Most of the joy in Event Factory comes from watching the unnamed narrator puzzle out how to behave amid Ravicka’s opaque social conventions. “I wanted to protest, but thought that would require why I had come, which I had not yet discovered.” The narrator is exceedingly polite, but her unusual choice of words makes her nearly as mysterious as the planet she is visiting. Some of her declarations are utterly cryptic, as with, “Getting off the desk proved a challenge: you could not trust the floor.” Other comments are dryly observant: “After a while, so much time of non-interaction had passed between us that she was a stranger again…” while some are hilariously deadpan: “‘Hello,’ I said trying to find my sexy voice, in case it was time to fuck.”The narrator tries to find her way around Ravicka with even less success than one expects in a book about social bumbling. Her attempts at communication fail hilariously: “[T]here was a gesture I was to make upon entering a place that was already peopled, something between ‘hello,’ ‘sorry,’ and ‘congratulations I’m here,’ and I could not remember what it was.” She finally makes a friend, another foreigner named Dar who doesn’t get Ravicka, either, and they search the old part of the city, trying to “…experience the muscularity of the present diminishing in me as it was replaced by a past I could never have known myself.” And yet, while they encounter natives and try to interact with them, “Listening to them was like gathering water without a pail.”She and Dar have pretty good sex: “A fist entered me…The fist lingered there; my muscles clutched it.” Still, she seeks out other partners, and falls in with a group of revolutionaries so laconic that the reader can’t tell why they’re angry. Addled by ennui is more like it. Instead of finding some great purpose to contribute to, she works on speaking the language. “I worked on my libsling, that peculiar Ravickian method of transposing verbs and proper nouns to account for a speaker’s ambivalence.” Even in a world as unusual as Ravicka, Renee Gladman doesn’t act like life is less banal than it is, a brave decision for a novel with pretensions toward science fiction.
There are passages in Event Factory which are furiously beautiful. The evening air is “tender;” the light is “yellow;” the morning is a “greener yellow at the start of the day but very moment growing golden.” Everything the narrator tries to do ends in failure, but experience somehow happens anyway. And while it’s probably important for the critic to preserve the oddness of Gladman’s project, it must be said that Event Factory, for all its challenging images and language, is cheeky and hilarious. It makes great, unpredictable company." - Adam Novy
"like a static sculpture that also seems constantly in motion or a dance momentarily evoking an architectural shape, renee gladman’s excellently strange new work EVENT FACTORY is a deliberate and skilfully sustained act of contradiction. gladman steadily is at play in moving the work forward, in its development — while committed to a flat, still affect. this commitment also gives the work a sense of unwavering integrity and moral purpose (as this affect perhaps the costume worn only by the true philosopher and/or depressive).
the story is of a visit to Ravicka, an odd place continuously evoking crisis and yet eerily absent of rage or tears or other emotional drama, except perhaps loneliness. this city-state seems on the verge of collapse (or at least utter transformation) but among its residents there’s an oddly muted reaction, a constant disassociation.
the rowdy, sage hitchhikers of the greater vehicle believe most of all in two ideas which for them are synonymous: emptiness and never-ending flux. so too in gladman’s new world, where the tender refrain, spoken by a prescriptive salsa dancer, goes: “It has to be done with movement” — but the ‘it’ has a necessarily obscure or inscrutable antecedent. a book also about the brittle and insufficient possibilities of communication, the uncanny EVENT FACTORY indeed is one, where the modular fabrications thus created are put together to move a reader from end to end, yet underscoring our locked, fixed positions within language.
Yet, what words besides “old” and “extraordinary” can I use to describe life there? And were I to write the description in the language of these hidden people what symbol would I use to represent air? You would want to listen to this language. I am sure of this, because to hear a person speak in gaps and air — you watch him standing in front of you, using the recognizable gestures — opening the mouth, smiling, pushing up the eyebrows, shrugging the shoulders — and your mind becomes blank as you try to match this with the sounds you hear. An instinct says tune it out, but something deep within fastens your attention. Your mouth falls open. You taste the strangeness; you try to make the sound with your mouth. That is speech. Now, how do you do this in writing? (61-62)" – Eugene Lim
"Q: Who is Renee Gladman?
A: A quick internet search doesn’t unearth much. Her name may also be Annette. She teaches in the Literary Arts Program at Brown University. She lives somewhere in Massachusetts. I don’t know where she was born. She edits and publishes Leroy, which brings the world beautifully bound chapbooks. She also operates Leon Works, which is an independent press. She’s friends with Eileen Myles. She’s the author of 4 works of prose and 1 collection of poetry. She’s a restless writer. Her prose poetically bends our expectations of what a novel should be and what it can do to the inside of us.
I read EVENT FACTORY, Renee Gladman’s first installment in what will be a trilogy of novels about the invented city-state Ravicka, while sitting on top of a stone wall, feeling a lot like Humpty Dumpty.
At only 126 pages, it is a slender novel, each word packed, lean, and oddly flat.
Although at a glance everything seems straightforward in this story about Ravicka – which is on the verge of vanishing – and is in fact quite explicit, there is a puzzling air wafting throughout Gladman’s prose, something contradictory in nature, that kept me at a peculiar distance.
I reached out.
I tried to scale walls.
No matter how much I wanted to be a part of her make-believe world, I never forgot I was a foreigner in this place, someone who would eventually leave Ravicka, much like her linguistically-inclined narrator, who arrives at the opening of the book and leaves with us at the end.
On the surface, Ravicka has yellow air and strange outgrowths and customs that seem friendly enough. Every interaction begins with cordial greetings and gestures – Hello, Hi, Gurantai – but any dialogue after these aerobic salutations is either misleading or deceptively ambiguous.
Deceptive because everything seems to make some kind of weird sense but nothing ever really does, no dots are connected, and yet I always wanted to read more, my curiosity tangled up with the slow disappearance of this silent city that often felt (but never truly was) entirely emptied of its inhabitants.
There is a pervasive sense of urgency among Ravickians yet none seem deeply bothered, just lonely and disconnected and constantly in motion.
As with any novel that digs its fingernails into my skin, there were parts that will perhaps forever remain lodged in my brownish brain matter.
Being somewhat perverted by nature, I will probably always remember the narrator (a woman) waking from a disorienting sleep and feeling a hand enter her, then some fingers, then a different amount of fingers, then a whole fucking fist, and the narrator makes a primitive sound, the sound of unexpected delight, something I can hear only because I want to, and the convulsion that cracks her spinal cord is her body getting up and leaving her breathless.
The other memory stuck in between the electrified pillows of my consciousness is not so sexual but more musical and foreboding.
The narrator is with her friend, Simon, waiting for a concert to begin. Until then she has not seen so many Ravickians gathered in the same place. As with many cultures, music brings the people together. Finally, 2 musicians walk onstage. The woman is armed with a cello, the man, an oud, which, according to Eileen Myles, is a totally percussive guitar.
The Ravickians make a lot of noise when these 2 people walk out to perform for them. The frenzy even makes a woman in the audience rip open her gown. Then everything settles and silence regains control of Ravicka, pressing down on its populace.
But that is not the image I have lodged in my brownish brain matter. It isn’t. What I remember, and probably always will, is the narrator’s voice speeding loud and clear towards the stage the second the woman pulls across the strings of her cello. A pointy eruption from the narrator, an acoustic shout that can’t be kept guarded inside her throat when the cellist brings her instrument to life, and so the opening notes of this concert are a mixture of the lowest-pitched viol directly followed by an uncontrollable punctuation mark of vocal glee.
Beautiful." - The Open End
"This very little book published by Dorothy Project, which calls itself a novel, looks and feels fun to begin with, something about the shape of it, I think. Like the shape of the book, the sentences and fragments are also short. The choppiness of the sentences create the sense that she is almost dismissive of any questions about what she is saying, just simple facts. Yet the facts are bizarre. Likewise, the narrator reports matter of factly that she had sudden sex with strangers in the book that she meets, mentioning it quickly, like it’s nothing, and then moving on.
The linguist has to Ravicka, (a made up city) unsure of why she has made the trip. The mores of this foreign place are baffling. She experiences waking up in the house of a Ravickian, for example, which “required tears, the squeezing of lemons, and the plie. The group could not acknowledge each other until after I was gone.” Greeting the people in the room leads to being beaten about the head, while smiling. They are insulted when she leaves.
One element of reality in this city after another proves mysteriously inaccessible for surprising reasons. She eventually lets movement guide her. She searches for the elusive downtown, unsure it even exists, for an inordinately long time. Nothing makes sense, almost as if it were experienced in the throes of hallucinatory dementia, but written with mastery. The dreamlike state is well captured here and unlike our elders with dementia, we can here immerse ourselves in the story while feeling we are being led through it for our own great pleasure." - Tantra Bensko
"It’s hard to know what to make of Event Factory, a short novel that’s the first offering from Danielle Dutton’s Dororthy, a publishing project. The book starts off with an epigraph from Samuel Beckett’s posthumous narrative “The Calmative,” which might offer a clue where Renee Gladman is coming from. Another clue comes in the thanks at the end of the book, which end “and most especially to Samuel R. Delany, for Dhalgren.” Event Factory might be seen as somewhere between Beckett and Delany (the later Delany, of Dhalgren and the Nevèrÿon books).
While Gladman’s book might be read as science fiction, there are none of the usual signifiers of science fiction: no novelties, no space ships, everything taking place in a universe that seems to be our own. Except that it’s not: the first sentence announces “From the sky there was no sign of Ravicka.” Ravicka is, we’ll learn, a city: the reader knows of no city named Ravicka, but might suspend disbelief even for fiction that is not science fiction – has any city ever been more prosaic than Sinclair Lewis’s Zenith in the state of Winnemac? But a sentence later we find this:
The city was large, yellow, and tender.
City refers, presumably, to Ravicka – although three sentences into the book, this isn’t entirely clear to the reader: “Ravicka” could have been any geographical object that can be seen from the sky. Attaching a proper name to it that isn’t a proper name that we know signals that we are outside of our usual space: but how far outside? A city can easily be large: there’s no problem there. Yellow gives pause: this isn’t one of the colors that a city is usually described at. It’s easy to imagine a gray city. A yellow city could conceivably be some sort of tourist destination – walls painted yellow in the way that Marrakech is sometimes called a red city. But the word yellow is functioning differently than large: we’ve stepped, to some degree, into the metaphorical, because, presumably, the city is not entirely yellow, only parts of it is. Or maybe it is: an emerald city suggests fantasy. In science fiction, Delany notes somewhere, there’s a looseness of language: what’s usually seen as metaphor could conceivably be entirely descriptive inside the mode of science fiction. Tender, the third adjective, pushes us in this direction. Even if a city can be yellow, how can it be tender? This adjective, of course, points us to Gertrude Stein, whose Tender Buttons pointed out the possibilities of using words in ways they weren’t intended. (Certainly someone must have by now suggested a science fictional reading of that book?)
Science fiction is inevitably disappointing to me because you often get an opening paragraph like this: one where you can’t understand how the words fit together, which is then defused: over the course of the narrative, you learn exactly what those words mean and why they’re being used in the sense that they are. A second reading is inevitably very different from the first, because the reader has already learned how to read the book. (Perhaps this is why one finds so many trilogies in science fiction?) Event Factory does not work this way. By a second time through – I have now read this book three times, which isn’t that much of an accomplishment, as it’s not very long – this paragraph does not make any more sense. Estrangement is continual in this book. While the proper nouns at the start seem recognizable – there are characters named Simon and Mrs. Madeline Savoy and Timothy; there’s a 32 bus; Simon sings from the Gospels, which could conceivably be the Gospels we know – but soon we find characters named Zàoter Limici, Ulchi Managua, and Dar which might almost be recognizable. (Diacritical marks, as in Delany’s Nevèrÿon, function as a signifier of difference: we look at a name on the page like “Zàoter” and realize that we have no idea how it might be spoken aloud, only that its a is almost certainly not our a.) As the book progresses, recognizable proper nouns almost disappear entirely. It comes as almost physical relief when Kecia Washington reappears toward the end of the book.
What does happen in this book? The narrator, a linguist, goes to the city of Ravicka for reasons left unclear. The air of the city appears to be yellow, though it’s hard to be sure about this, and what exactly this means: perhaps its only smog, maybe its something more fantastical. People seem to be leaving or to have left the city, though why and where they’ve gone is left unclear. The narrator speaks Ravic, the language of the city; she seems to understand the gestural components of communication in Ravicka, which are many. But she still seems to be on the outside of something, mirroring the position of the reader with the book. Because there are the signifiers of science fiction, we keep expecting that something might be explained that will make everything snap into place or to explicate what the ground rules are; perhaps the narrator is expecting the same thing, but it never does. The effect is of taking a long trip in a country that you don’t understand as well as you’d hoped. Again and again there’s the sense of linguistic breakdown:
The woman interrupted, “Yes. We know all of that,” and nodded compassionately. Then continued, more upbeat, “My name is (then gave a puff of air). Will you come with me?”
And that was what I had feared: she was not Ravickian and, what was worse, she used air instead of hard sound for speech. (pp. 56–7)
There’s more than a hint of metafiction scattered through this book (on the next page, they eat what seems to be “shredded paper, which seemed to have been stewed in various dark and spicy sauces”): one wonders if “hard sound” could mean written or printed letters, since we already know that the air of Ravicka is not quite the same as the air we know. Or we might read this passage as the narrator having become estranged from language: that spoken language turns into only “a puff of air”. This is left unresolved: perhaps it’s both at once.
This book feels like Dhalgren might if that book were more linguistically turned in on itself. There’s the same sense of inscrutability: I think that’s a lot of why I like Dhalgren, and that largely works here as well. Event Factory is supposed to be the first book of a trilogy; I’ll be interested to see where Renee Gladman goes." - Dan Visel
Little discourse exists today, at either pole of high literary theory or pop discourse, that narrativizes the bond between the individual writer and the reader in poetry or fiction, other than metaphors of the “literary market” as a collective purchasing power or critical arbiter of taste. The death of the author coincided with the birth (and, some would argue, tyranny, in reader-response criticism, blog, and spectator culture) of the reader as a determinant of value and meaning. This is modernity’s grand narrative of failed representation (of war, and the “nothing that is not there, / and the nothing that is”: the horror vacui of the man, or a generation of men and women, without qualities), in what Marshall McLuhan declared to be our postliterate culture, wherein the author has been lowered from the status of sacerdotal epistemological subject (one who knows, and who disseminates knowledge), to a bureaucratic mouthpiece carrying out her author-function, to a ghostwriter of forms (canonical, extracanonical, or undecided).
The most well-known interpolation of a reader in nineteenth-century literature is “Reader, I married him,” from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Roland Barthes’s The Lover’s Discourse (1978) and The Pleasure of the Text (1973), Toril Moi’s Sexual/Textual Politics (1988), and other essays by Julia Kristeva, Hélène Cixous, and Luce Irigaray constitute a few cornerstones in the textual hermeneutics, instantiated by Roland Barthes, of both écriture (writing about writing) and écriture feminine (the inscription of the female body and female difference in language and text), as well as theories of the lyric, narrative, personhood, and body politics. Choosing between the assembly and gleeful dismemberment of a purely citational, web-derived textual “body” (Flarf) or a version of Homeric mimesis (e.g., Kenneth Goldsmith’s Day, wherein he transcribes mass media’s ideology rather than poetic tradition) takes the questions of agency, intentionality, and framing (for writer or reader) and turns them into questions of proprietorship (intellectual property and copyright or droit moral): a swift divagation from the epistemological and ontological questions that haunted the modernists, from Sartre’s “What Is Literature?” to the question of whether a “poem” is defined or judged by its constitutive elements (its material body as expressed in syntax and line, meter and rhythm), its function (how it “works”), or its telos (was it “intended,” and if so, for whom). Writing to one’s audience is a doubled-edged sword. While pandering to the masses can be a means of survival at the cost of authenticity, limiting one’s projected readership to those schooled in academic jargon or in the parlance of an elitist (pop or hipster) coterie can also be forms of false consciousness.
New Narrative writers mark the gulf between readerly intimacy and direct interpolation in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and today’s habitus of authorial onanism as a symptom of capitalist alienation, and also as its source. One New Narrative writer is Renee Gladman, a professor at Brown University (school of experimental aesthetics). The author of A Picture-Feeling (2005) and several works of fiction, including Event Factory (2010), The Activist (2003), Juice (2000), and Arlem (1994), Gladman tests the potential of the sentence with the cartographic precision and curiosity endemic to the New Narrativists, whose work is framed in spatial rather than stylistic terms. Gladman’s work, and the work of other New Narrativists (Kathy Acker, Camille Roy, Michelle Tea, Eileen Myles, Laurie Weeks), borrows more from new performance theories than from narrative theories (Walter Benjamin, Louis Althusser), most of which insist on separating art from aesthetics, or operating within a performative frame rather than conflating form with content. A productive, Brechtian sense of the alienation effect is different from the totalized spectacle: the formal and real subsumption of aesthetics under capitalism and performance, anesthetizing emotion and the participatory real. In the words of Walter Benjamin: “We will arrive at a moment of sufficient self-alienation where we can contemplate our own destruction [as a species] as in a static spectacle.”
Richard Hornby’s antiperformative “metadrama” and other neorealist art theories that deny the performative aspect of personae, or the frame, populate contemporary art in pop and academic circles. The neoliberal subject has been split into the spectacle itself (a ticketed event, or occupied site, rather than a commodified subject), and an observer of and in spectator culture, passively watching the made-for-TV sitcom/soap opera/reality show not only of other event-sites. Gladman’s Event Factory (the first novel of The Ravickians, a series taking place in a fictional city in an invented language) as the new psychological novel? Hardly.
Beyond postmodern formalism lies connectivity (or the abandoned dream thereof): Gladman distrusts the power of authorial language to uphold meaning for a reader (the stabilization of a signifying code, allowing for communication: language’s original “function”). Gladman invented not just words in The Ravickians but a language, Ravic, to “say what my voice would allow me to say,” and rid her voice of the “vowel presence” of Spanish and English: “With a name like Luswage Amini, syllables get pronounced the way a black Southerner speaks. It’s like Lu-SWAGGE, kind of slow, drawn-out … I think black people and Eastern Europeans should have a conversation about possible overlaps between their experience.”
Likening the communicative restraints of the English tongue to a stiffening body, Gladman suggests how communication is conscripted by not only logos, but the grammatology of the language in which we are speaking or writing: “the subject-verb-predicate order enforces a pattern. Having the body as an extra means of communication is one way of addressing that limitation, but the body still imposes another kind of order. You age and can’t communicate because you can’t spend three minutes in a backbend.”
E. M. Forester’s panacea for modernist nausea and anomie (“only connect”) strikes the postmodern auteur as hopelessly naïve, yet narratives of isolated suffering and disconnection (heightened in cyber culture) dominate American media, as we arrive and depart, yet rarely connect, during travel, and only at a temporal remove in reading. The flexible labor of geographically mobile subjects (fully wired and easily transplanted) may adapt us to the workplace and urban living, but what is the “added value” (or hidden cost) of not connecting with a writer, or reader, or, in reading (or writing), failing to make connections or understand?
The lines between past and future, as well as cultural and racial fixities, dissolve from solid to liquid in Gladman’s story “Calamities,” a text whose armature is performance: “There’s this feeling that there is a community or interested parties who are reading these essays, because they are also junior faculty or are also living in lonely cities or also have a crazy idea, like that black people could be Eastern Europeans.” The fetishization of aesthetics over labor, of capital over art, extends to the fetishization of the text: written language’s trace of presence rather than “real presence” of speech displaces the difference of the other, beginning with the authoritas denied God the Father and the narrator (Sartre’s dreams of totalized meaning) and ending in simulacra, or witnessing of the “untruth” of texts removed from structural laws (linearity, progression, meter, authorial intent, and time). “The truth of writing is the not-true,” as Alice Jardine says. “Writing is … the supplement in motion: liquid, inconsistent, imp-proper, non-identical to itself, it menaces all laws of purity.” Including, apropos to Gladman’s work, the purity of genre and classificatory essentialisms regarding race, ethnicity, and other taxonomies of species and culture. Paradoxically, the supplemental trace marks of the absence of presence: lack rather than meaning as the condition of thought and experience, and self-alienation within representation (the written text) bearing the necessity of its own deconstruction and critique.
Whether the staged interiority of a monadic “I” is in conversation with an interiorized “Thou” (and, in the history of Greek drama, the collectivist, or royal, “we”) and is an a priori construction projected, as W. R. Johnson believed, for a reader, or whether the work of the lyric is the staging of that self, tempt questions of cultural representations of the graphic “sign” (mark, character) and the word, as differentiated from voice, and, in many Indo-European and Gallo-Romantic languages, the split between sign and referent. The “absence” of presence, attenuated in narratives wherein a new tongue is out of necessity invented, transcends the catch-22 of unrecognition or invisibility (lacking signification) or, risking speech, only to be reappropriated and resignified by canonical “authority” or a hegemonic race, class, or gender.
The trace, as an epitaph marking the lost object or memory, goes by several names in Jacques Derrida’s work (differance, arche-writing, pharmakon, specter): Derrida was also interested in the “gothic rhetorical effects” of encryption, paralysis, violation, and unspeakability, employed to “vex topological distinctions” through punning, and remains, since Plato, the most significant thinker on dialectic between the privileging of the text over orality. While it remains a mere supplement or index to presence, it “cuts” through the dream that there was an ontological presence, to which the infinite drift (the elided chain of signifiers not originating in or ending in a transcendent signified) refers. Language games, whether poetic or narrative, written or spoken, are speech acts, intention or not, with socially consequential and transferential implications: “I am listening” also means “Listen to me.” Or, as Jonathan Culler notes, a “work has structure and meaning because it is read in a particular way, because […] properties, latent in the object itself, are actualized by the theory of discourse applied to the latent act of reading.”
Ironically, in today’s “New Narratives,” the building blocks of language, rather than communicative dialogue, perform a form of theatricality feigning indifference from an audience. This alienation is revealed in the paratactic “anti-cartography” of Gladman’s prose: at ease with dislocation, in rejection of totalized meaning and the responsibility of the auteur to serve as authority or guide. Gladman creates dense paratactic webs of relation, language, and plot, further complicating rather than streamlining or theorizing these contradictions (Barrett Watten’s Total Syntax, for example, nods to a patriarchal lineage of writers including Olson, Zukofsky, and Pound attempting to create a master-code or ur-text to embody language and its rule-sets to address the paradox of how language generates meaning, if meanings prismatic and in flux). Gladman’s writing process is one infinite drift, lacking formal closure or even dialogue: “I don’t have to end them … I would hope that through the accumulation of attempts to understand myself in particular experiences, maybe I would be something. That would be the self, an accumulation.” Gladman’s disseminated speaker, sans self, thus laments: the map is missing, and even if we had one in our hands, would we follow it, even if being able to cognitively “map” our environment, personal history, or historical time?
For Gladman, epistemology is subject and site, as is the urban imaginary, or what Adrienne Rich calls the politic of location. The map figures largely in The Activist, a novel whose chapters include “Tour,” “The Bridge,” “Radicals Plan,” “Never Again Anywhere,” “White City I, and II,” driven by the question “Why is the map mutating?” and, later, despair (“The map has become everything to us, yet we can’t control it”). Capital’s liquidity is a literal metaphor for Gladman, who describes modern consciousness as a kind of freebasing on isolation, in “Juice”:
When my faith returned all my lovers were gone. That morning I woke to the two hundred and thirty-second day of the crisis; I was beneath my bed … lonely, but I was also sure. Life without juice had taken on the name and shape of my weakest character, who — when we passed on the street — did not know me. I knew it was me by the way my head felt: people find themselves in an idea and feel so specified by the idea that they are compelled to show it. Today all my ideas are liquid. That day of my faith, friends thinking I was sick came by … The juice on my mind was no longer juice. There was an absence there, but one so constant it became familiar. I did not want to drink it.Gladman’s anti-epic stance (a literal form of self- and other-leveling) expresses the body, and the denial of grand narrative’s distancing from temporality (and any perspectival judgment on one’s surroundings, based on a priori or theoretical “knowledge” distinct from, or as inextricable from, empirical experience). In this way, Gladman illustrates viscerally the inability to fully sever text from context, or form from content, questioning whether abstracted, reified, disembodied meaning (the decontextualizations of formalism and neoliberalism) can even be considered meaning, given the first order of alienation — representation — as such. “I was most interested in experience — how you obtain it, how you ‘capture’ it — but what led me to poetry rather than fiction, where experience is captured all the time, was a need to slow the whole thing down, to draw out the moments of experience, expose the gaps.” In Event Factory (wherein an outsider struggles to physically orient herself in a city) and in The Ravickians (wherein a novelist struggles to represent that city), Gladman first sensitizes us to the politics of (mis-) translation before announcing the solution to mis- and un- recognition of otherness (the abject, foreign, or unassimilable subject into the maw of globalized English, and capitalism) to be the creation of a new, or forgotten, language: art, its forays into the unknown, outside of Hegelian sublation, market determinations and codified laws, a “language” immediately understood (i.e., in no need of pricing or translation) by a reader versed in encryption of truth. Metaphor incarnate, the trick mirror of potentiality as well as the actual weight, and worth, of relationships, the journey through sprawling mazes, of, and in, to life. - Virginia Konchan
Renee Gladman, Newcomer Can’t Swim, Kelsey Street Press, 2007.
„Written as seven loosely connected pieces, Renee Gladman's NEWCOMER CAN'T SWIM blurs boundaries between poetry and prose. In languages of elegy and splintered consciousness, the book recreates life for the twenty-first century flÃ¢neur in urban America amid a confusion of aims, identities and street life of people connected to ipods downloaded with personalized mixes and sets. In a contemporary world of signs that crisscross a global culture, how can one maintain a firm existence and make human connections? Gladman posits a fluid self and parallel existence attuned to being lost. Quote: The / body moves away from living, from the flesh and bone of life, / and becomes regions. I take on / water. I look outward." A tension holds all frequencies together, keeping the contradiction of a life that animates the "I" of this book at the same time that it goes on without her.“
„Imagine yourself in a world in which you have to know who you are to know where you are or is it the other way around? Welcome to Renee Gladman's Newcomer Can't Swim, a textural world that configures issues of personal agency and social relations in geographical terms. Gladman confronts us with a landscape that is constantly shifts and morphs, sometimes within the space of a sentence. Brilliantly astute witty challenging, Newcomer Can't Swim re-envisions the dangers of living, as Stevie Wonder would say, "just enough for the city" - Evie Schockley„In Newcomer Can't Swim, Renee Gladman invites us to accompany her protagonists on their treks into, through and across variegated, mysterious soul-spaces and dreamscapes, troubling the surfaces and boundaries of story and genre. Her figures touch down, chapter by chapter, on beaches, city streets, and unmarked territories, in which echoes, shadows, and parallel presences delineate borders of the cannily strange. As the narrative flickers before us, gathering into an enthralling flow, we find ourselves recording with unmediated exhilaration that Gladman once again is mapping one of the most original and vital courses in contemporary literature.“ - John Keene„Newcomer maybe Can't Swim, but in this much-anticipated new work by Renee Gladman, "Newcomer," her friends, and lovers, know how to cross estranged cities with the allegoric gravity of figures on a Tarkovskian set. These are cities where water falls everywhere (or there is none). Where a woman lies smashed on the pavement. Where two women make love in a restaurant restroom (and are invited to leave). Where chairs cruise hotly toward each other across rooms. Where a beloved dog bespeaks its mistress, and a musician and a fish are both out of water. On the beach "the person you're with has a hard time focusing on you because you appear to be between forms." In precisely the same way, these installations, as Gladman calls them, shift through spaces normally reserved for poetry: beside the lines, under them, are more stories, not always sweet. By combining the tension of story with the thinking spaces of the poem, Gladman resolves the interstice between prose and poetry, demonstrating once more that she is a leading practitioner of the "new prose" of her or any generation.“ - Gail Scott„The author of Juice and The Activist , two enigmatic prose works that investigate the ways people move in and out of cities, identities and collectivities, returns with a set of seven linked, cinematic, mostly prose works that push her researches into new territory: “From the street, into an uncom-/ mon space, then through it, and/ to the threshold of the room,/ every possible way of asking 'Is this me?' ” Gladman, who publishes Leon Works Books (see below), is here published by a Berkeley collective cofounded by poets Rena Rosenwasser and Patricia Dienstfrey.“ – Publishers Weekly
"who’s aiming higher than Renee Gladman? her wrestling with the basic ideas of fiction–and its osmotic border with poetry–can lead to spectacular instances of art, passages at home in strangeness, maneuvering with uncanny grace in fields of indeterminacy and unknowing.
i knew her mainly from reading JUICE, a strong, sustained meditation where she stretched the connections that mended sentences’ semantic gaps to their limit… this latest, NEWCOMER CAN’T SWIM, is a collection of “installations” and i found myself taking a shine to some more than others. i liked those with a stronger narrative momentum than those that constellate various portraits or scenes (but it’s pretty radical stuff and i may be too poorly equipped to apprehend some of these seriously new approaches.) …in any case i thought “Untitled, Woman on Ground” was awesome, heartbreaking, and completely new. it might be a breakup story, it might be a story about rubbernecking around an accident. it repeats a theme of the book–the various ways we fail to communicate or only communicate in desperate and blunted ways. another favorite was “kingdom in three panels,” especially louie’s dog-mind…
some came up short nonetheless, where i both emotionally and intellectually couldn’t connect. but i did think what she’s going for is some incredible place that requires real inspiration each time. and it’s pretty hard to hit that every outing. people get blamed for that much ambition, and i’m not sure wrongly–but when she connects the transport’s pretty phenom." - Eugene Lim
“This conversation is one of a nomadic contemporariness.” -Danielle Vogel, in an intro to an essay discussing Renee Gladman
“No sooner had the puppet satisfied his hunger than he began grousing and crying, because he wanted a pair of new feet.” - from Geoffrey Brock’s 2009 translation of Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio
It follows, then, that we must revolt. I suggest that we can do so by reading and writing and thinking in new ways, by entering the conversation fully informed and intellectually available but hotly ready to stutter and make elliptic.
Start with Renee Gladman’s new book, Newcomer Can’t Swim.
Above the head, a mouth. Body flat against the ground, except the small of the back curved, the legs pulling away. Surrounded by other bodies stranger with her eyes closed. I’m awake because I’m not sleeping next to you ever. The mouth is blue. It is as though the sky. Opened like so and waiting. She recognizes what it is -the sky.
Although this excerpt is by no means representative of all that Gladman does in this book, it does suggest the kind of world into which she lures the reader: violence to and of the body, split worlds/places, syntactical double-ness and time travel, dissociation, voice, terror, calm. At The Collagist, Danielle Vogel argues that Gladman’s “anti-narratives help the reader into a dislocated and liminal state of encounter. These borders include all edges of the page, the word, the reader, and the writer: each acts as a portal, as a door.” This makes tremendous sense when the book is considered as aligned with the alienating and stylish films of Andrei Tarkovsky, about whom (so says Wikipedia), Bergman said “[He] is... the one who invented a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream.” Gladman’s book is a certainly of the same matter, and she directly references his films (especially Stalker) throughout. Vogel again: “[T]ransfusion occurs... passage becomes possible.” What we get out of Newcomer Can’t Swim is a gift; Gladman returns power to the reader. She offers entry into a deliciously unsettling “narrative,” really, a sort of adventure. She reassembles art she likes and makes new art -- all in service of creating a new art “experience,” suggesting a chain-letter of creation. One particularly heart-wrenching piece, “Louie Between Cities,” creates the projection effect, by which a viewer/reader/listener can project any number of possibilities onto a text; more than metaphorical openness, such an effect also allows a “user” to imagine multiple possibilities for the textual reality. “Louie” can be related to Tarkovsky’s scary “zone,” a locale of terror and dream in Stalker; can be about the experience of an alienated individual returning “home” (there might be issues of class/race/ethnicity “betrayal” or of the aftermath of coming out or even immigrant experiences); can be about the “after” of a trauma; can be about grief; can even be, quite simply, about the nightmare of adventure and return.
Everybody howled when I walked through the front door. They missed me; I deserted them. That combination of sound. I could hardly recognize them -- all drenched in brown. “Where are your things?” my mother asked me. I had lost my few possessions in the mud. “So come in, come in,” she said. I sat there, trying to contain my horror, straining for the past: the room where I’d slept as a child, the window whose generous light I’d sworn to die in, the balls I played with stored beneath the couch, the old wide couch. Nothing was the same. She said she wasn’t “Mother” anymore; they called her “Dagwright.”
Step two: consider text as adventure. If the work isn’t suggesting multiplicity, then it seems to me that the writer (or some other force) is exerting too much control over the reader. I don’t mean to suggest that poets can’t strive for “mastery” of language’s tools, but poets should be offering more than their own writing; the work should offer an experience, right? To this end, it might be useful to think of good poetry (good art) as something that allows the user to have an adventure. Collodi’s Pinocchio reveals something about the potential for adventure (especially as it is created in “projection effect” and as it implies alienation). In her lovely analyses at the end of the Brock translation, Rebecca West notes “the mysterious preexistence of Pinocchio, a sheer potentiality hidden in a piece of wood and waiting to be liberated into form”; what could be more suggestive of the act of creating (as writer and as reader)? Of the act of submitting a body to an adventure? “Geppetto’s home is just... right... for such a birth to occur, since it is a humble abode with real, broken down, meager furnishings but embellished with a painted fire and a painted kettle steaming away on the back wall. It is a liminal space...” It seems just right, to me, that textual adventures emerge in these liminal spaces, lovingly framed, of course, by generous writers, but also juxtaposed against our domestic lives." - Olivia Cronk
„The events in Renee Gladman’s Newcomer Can’t Swim take place in the present tense and without a primary cohesive narrative frame or voice. Caught in a de-narrativized limbo, the characters and their actions resist the normal interpretative processes that readers bring to fiction; they are presented to the reader in unmediated form, with the apparent intention that the individual elements of the book will resonate sufficiently to supply a different, non-narrative type of coherence. Of course such a project always risks that coherence, because the interpretative community to which most people belong seeks particular kinds of shape, an authoritative pattern applied retrospectively to otherwise random events. At times, especially during a car accident scene, the sheer power and uniqueness of Gladman’s sequences ensure success, and one hardly notices the absence of an interpretative narratorial voice. The authenticity of the character’s perspective (lying on the ground, badly bleeding) is extremely memorable and well rendered. But coherence and continuity are also occasionally sacrificed, particularly in the final third of the book, simply because the absence of fictional signposting is not compensated for with engaging enough images or set pieces. Nonetheless, when Gladman manages to evoke qualities of impermanence and of the intangibility of being (“I see you flickering. I don’t know if the others see you. How long can you last?”), she creates a powerful sense of the tentative nature of human consciousness and how it interacts with its surroundings. The risk-taking is worth it.“ - Neil Murphy
„Renee Gladman’s 2007 release, Newcomer Can’t Swim, resists spatial binaries, forcing the reader to reevaluate “common ground,” to morph and change in both familiar and unfamiliar environments. Though Gladman writes in prose for the duration of this particular volume, we are forced to commit to the shifts in time and space that are just as likely to occur within a single sentence as they are within an entire paragraph. An unsettling anchor in reality is ever-present in these dreamy domains. While the poems fit in spaces both confined and broad, from the paradox of sexuality to a vast multi-cultural city to the seat of a folding chair, they are truly reminiscent of territories only a mind can go to thrive. Leave your body at the door.
Narrative and point of view play a dual role within the seven individual vaguely-titled “chapters” of the collection. These narratives are mind personas or forms rather than tangible bodies carrying out physical deeds in a concrete setting. We are taken from place to place (a city, a restaurant, a painting, a chair) all nonspecific where unique details are concerned. Gladman’s impressive use of somewhat cryptic and obscure description ensures that each word in every poem counts. From “Untitled, Park in City”:
Against the back, the mouth, when having to turn away from
It. Bodies move closer through the night, but remain sepa-
rate here in this park. The impulse hovers. Time makes the
long body short, small-waisted now: yellow skin, a brown tuft
of hair, you or I dreaming. With the back up.
Description is secondary. The subject of the poem links and thereby roots ambiguous, blobby people (small-waisted things with yellow skin, brown hair) to a generic, unnamed park. A separation between “bodies” or forms in this environment is crucial, but also allows for the impulse to draw nearer.
Similarly, in “Untitled, Woman on Ground,” Gladman navigates a habitat with her sketchy mapping. This time, the subject, a female form, is positioned on the ground, having been struck by a cab. Others perch on the sidewalks to catch a glimpse of her and to gain knowledge of her plight. This particular section is told in second person so as to invite the reader into her metamorphosing mind-over-body experience:
A woman bends down and wipes your forehead with a
cloth, perhaps a bandana taken off her hair. ‘The car that
hit you is parked around the corner,” she reassures. You
reach out for her retreating hand and bring it back towards
you. “Honey, you were crushed,” she whispers.
In the fourth section, “Untitled, Colorado,” Gladman’s sharp, dry wit is showcased as she sketches a scene from a restaurant in which two women (designated by letter rather than first name) leave their table to have a brief sexual encounter in a bathroom stall:
A. towers above me as we walk to the lady’s room. The restaurant is
working out fine, but the conversation we need to have can’t take place
at the table where we’re sitting. So we agree to continue it in the bath-
room. A. worries that her beer will be taken while we’re gone, and I’m
worried about my wallet, which I left in the middle of the table, under
a pile of napkins surrounded by hot-sauce bottles. The bathroom is un-
occupied. Once inside, I pull her tank top over her head and seize her
left nipple with my mouth. I have to stand on the toilet to do this. Well,
I have to kneel on the toilet. I tug on the nipple, and wrap my arms
around her waist. She does next what all day I’ve been hoping she
would do, and afterwards screams, “Re…!”Time to go back to our table.
One gets the sense that the occasional body (form) in Gladman’s work is a wanderer and that we are merely invited to wander alongside them. In the “chapter,” “Louie Between Cities,” our chief subject is a dog whose understanding of the world both mirrors and contradicts that of a person-body’s and smudges the lines so that animal blends into human:
From the ship, as we made our approach, I watched the mud in dis-
belief. Something had happened to the sand, to the absolute blue of
the sky. When I was young, I stood between the two and burned. My
skin blistered and my ass wagged; I was excited. We called it “eating
heat.” We scavenged across the plains, like dogs, for the sun, and by the
end of the day, found enough to return home happy. This time, the
mud made everything brown, from the sky to the grass surrounding our
houses—yes my house was still there, just miserably brown—even my
family exhibited the cast.Here, the reader is given disjointed clues as to the species of the speaker. While “ass wagged” would certainly suggest a canine narrator, “like dogs” challenges and disputes this theory. We recall the section, Untitled, Woman on Ground,” in which a speaker we can assume is somewhat human has a ground-level view of her surroundings. Here, too, we are back on the ground, this time as a dog-body, looking up at passersby. This is a fine illustration of Gladman’s literal attention to positioning, how it shapes and mold perceptions and informs environments.
Gladman doesn’t necessarily strive to fulfill specific goals in her work, nor does she attempt to operate in themes other than the overly general theme of disjointed dream-space. Rather, much like Thalia Field and Nicole Brossard, she blurs the boundaries between genres, expanding and tightening the perimeters of the traditional story with what I imagine is a great deal of ease and an enormous success. While her non-sensible (though, not at all senseless) outcomes may be somewhat standoffish, they’re always a surprise. Gladman, in writing Newcomer Can’t Swim, aims perhaps to challenge the conventions of prose, poetry, space, subject, and point of view. In this capacity, she doesn’t disappoint.“ - Stephanie Carpenter
"Where cities built by magic
parted before us like mirages
mint captured our way
birds escorted us
and fish swam upstream
while the sky spread out before us
as Fate followed in our wake
like a madman brandishing a razor. (From Andrei Tarkovsky’s film, The Mirror, written by the filmmaker’s father, poet Arseny Tarkovsky)
Renee Gladman, in Newcomer Can’t Swim, gives us cities like these: at once hypnotic and treacherous, mapped and counter-mapped, landscape and dreamscape. Artifact and experience pull against each other and the reader, expertly guided, falls somewhere in between. Characters are brought forth, and then questioned; we can never really know them, because the narrator doesn’t fully know them. They wander through her lines, which read as a metaphor for streets in specific urban settings and for almost Anywhere, USA. The disorientation is what orients: welcome to this world. The known is in the not-knowing. How we organize or think about our multiple realities in 21st century urban North American society is at stake.
Gladman is best known for her books, Juice (2001) and The Activist (2003). Her work is most often referred to as “new prose” or “narrativity” along with poets and writers such as Gail Scott, Pamela Lu, Camille Roy, Mary Burger, and Robert Glück, among others. And for good reason–Gladman’s prose/poetry is not incantatory and neither is it reportage–it is a re-writing of genre and of the world. Boundary conditions, even of blended forms, are frangible and deliberately subverted. The narrative consciousness is polyphonic and discordant with unconventional transitions and sentence construction. Newcomer Can’t Swim does not offer a given signage. Though the reader can follow, the following leads everywhere and nowhere. Here everything is in progression: the story, and the form and by what language the totality of her experiment is named.
The book is divided into seven main sections. The first, “Untitled, Park in City,” begins, “Above the head, a mouth. . .” (1) and ends, “The eyelids shut” (2). It serves as an introduction to the body and to the body of the book. The reader is asked to externalize the instrument of language while also viewing it through a closed interiority. This sets up the twinning of subjectivity and narrativity throughout the book and the limitations of each. From the narrator: “. . . I have the map you drew in my back pocket,/but I want to get to you without using the map. . . . I am not in the place where you live. I am on my way there. . . ” and “. . .What street/is on the corner of two other streets? What could you have/meant?” (5). Is the narrator lost? Or situated in the errant cartography of the designed city? Or suspended between the constructed binary of self and other? The tension between the intimacy of contact and the isolation of distance at once exalts and exhausts.
The shifting realities in Newcomer develop by accretion. Her sentences are conduits through the urban landscape and punctuation functions as a kind of traffic signal. Stop. Go. Yield. Turn. She modifies and directs the way the space of the page is experienced as a communicative device. Each paragraph is site-specific. Gladman sees them as “installations.” It is easy to see why. There is volition, a patterning modulation and a figurative repletion; they are both philosophic and cinematic. They motion to one another in scenes with long takes and jump-cuts. She writes, “When the birds leap off the wall/and enter this world, no one/reacts. The museum simply/closes its doors; the artist leaves/the country. The birds fly above/us—all the inhabitants of the/zone—and in that way of birds, /form their own world” (101).
The geography of the external collides with the geography of the internal producing a democratized aesthetic of indeterminacy. Epistemological borders are permeable even as concrete and experiential differences abound. Throughout the book, but especially in the third section, “Untitled, Woman on Ground,” and the fourth section “Untitled, Colorado,” Gladman upends themes of race, gender, class, and sexual identity with genre-bending precision. The city and the word are a locus of power and devastation. Sentences break; people bleed. Constructions of self and other are contested. Multiple questions arise: What is the obligation between the polis and the private, the subject and the object, the language of autobiography and the language of autography? The social production of identity and its manifestation in the every day is what her characters inhabit and question.
In “Untitled, Woman on Ground,” the danger of crossing the street becomes the racial politics of moving through communities (which becomes the danger of “being,” highlighting the inequity and peril of the world in which you do reside and the inaccessible world in which you do not and how your self-presentation and “being-ness” is perceived and mis/treated). The narrator describes a scene:
These are the externals: one, you will never make it home in time;
two, cars have bumpers but pedestrians do not and this is not universally understood; three, you have been plowed into by a car; and four, a crowd encircles you but it
is an inattentive crowd. ‘What are you doing,’ you gurgle
to a man near you. ‘Standing guard,’ he replies with his
chest puffed out. So, if they are proud, you are. . . ? (11)
The driver is a white male; the angry youth is black. (I did this
on purpose. Here are two reasons. First, as you’re lying
there, as this youth is very articulate, you can convalesce in
thinking he’s family: he represents you. Second, I wanted
to see if anything has changed now that blacks are the second
largest “minority” in this country instead of the first—
if that makes their voice more like an echo, if the anger of it
has receded.) (16)
The scene of an accident, its chaos, fear, anger, shock, dislocation, forced interaction and the quality and tenor of rescue, is beleaguered and uncompromising. Gladman’s words circle and haunt, they expose and harbor, they confront and query—and they never underestimate the reader. She interrogates racism and the condition of African Americans in a contemporary urban locale. It is a moving (as in motion, as in heartbreak) rendering of the brutal and delicate vicissitudes of connection and loss in a failing society. “I want to tell you that this is a metaphor or a dream, as in/Kundera, but you are too fascinated with dying to hear me” (22).
In “Untitled, Colorado,” Gladman again underscores conflicted social biases and the disorientation of public space. The narrator “I” and the character “A.” are waiting to be seated in a restaurant. The waiting is delayed and fraught. It is unclear exactly why they are not being seated. Is it racism? Homophobia? Both? “‘Gladman party of two’. . . . But she [the hostess] doesn’t mean us. I can’t explain how I know. My name is Gladman and there are two of us. . .but that call, it’s for a different sort of folk” (25). The narrator “I” has the same last name as the author. Additionally, the mysterious party of “Gladman’s” that the hostess does call further complicates the layering of subject and object. Misrepresentation becomes representation in the text and the metatext.
The scene fluctuates between states of mind at turns anxious, angry, knowing, and detached. Visual and auditory stimuli crowd the experience and exacerbate the relegation of the characters as “other” and the cleft positioned between them and the rest of the world. That the first person narrator/character is listening to an audio book (from which phrases are taken and interspersed with the text and which is either a travel guide or an account of the disappearance of two women, or both), while this is taking place adds another stratum of displacement and involvement. When the two women finally make it inside the restaurant, they experience sanctuary only in the restroom. From the narrator: “The bathroom is unoccupied. Once inside, I pull her tank top over her head and seize her left nipple with my mouth. I have to stand on the toilet to do this. Well, I have to kneel on the toilet. I tug on the nipple, and wrap my arms around her waist. She does next what all day I’ve been hoping she would do, and afterwards screams, ‘Re…!’” (28).
This urgent and starkly beautiful lesbian lovemaking in a place called “Colorado” in a line of other “Gladman’s” in a restaurant of ugly repute in a room of literal elimination is how the couple finally enters and creates their own space. The restaurant, however, subsumes them as they return to their table. “Everybody’s white. . . . A. signs to me. . . ‘You’re talking too loud’. . . . The waiter rushes over. . . ‘Ladies, could you come with me?’” (29). The body and the idea of the body are impugned. But the other Gladman intervenes. “Meanwhile, words between the waiter and old Mr. Gladman are destabilizing” (29). There is innuendo, accusation, overlapping exchanges, and a general hush of bewildered intention. In the end, Mr. Gladman pays their bill. Yet, “Outside nothing has changed. The car is still in the parking lot; the sun is still out. . . . We pull away from the restaurant and, for some minutes, I allow myself to hold onto the image of Old Mr. Gladman. ‘What happened back there?’ I ask A. . . . , ‘Could have been anything,’ I open the book, replace the headphones” (31). The reader is left to her own flawed devices. As in an earlier statement in the section, “More of this relying on signals for comfort” (27).
Newcomer Can’t Swim is full of false starts, occlusions, and constancy. Sometimes this can lapse into a kind of writerly ennui. A dearth of structural variation or tone change, when the composition lulls, the repetition reads flat or the characters too indistinct, the feeling can be inchoate in a way that may vex or tire the reader. But this is extremely rare, as pause and interval are deftly handled, repetition and character are animate and superbly written, and contemplative turns are timed and welcome. The front cover, strikingly designed by Quemadura and perfectly fitted to the book, is textured and the seemingly rusty remnants are ominous. The font between sections of the book pushes forward with its uppercase diagonal sweep to the next page. Gladman writes, “Being in a place ‘Colorado’ that doesn’t quite look like ‘Colorado’. . . makes you begin to wonder about maps and orientation. I want to test these thoughts” (26). Again, the author’s thinking about thinking is a kind of map—but without a legend. In Newcomer Can’t Swim, the map is cultural construction, dissolution, and illusion. People and locations disregulate. Sudden and overwhelming meteorological events occur; rain, wind, and leaves are almost themselves characters. Positionality is the setting and the undoing.
In “Kingdom in Three Panels,” the penultimate section and perhaps the most important, Gladman’s voice is surreal and almost subliminal. In the first subsection, written in short paragraphs, “Street and Cello,” the four characters are running from something. They move lithely and then thickly through time and space. “Mona paints the image of Natalie running from the door/of the pink house exactly one hour before she does it. . . .” (41). Rain interrupts the action and then becomes it. There is a violin (that is really a cello) in the distance (that no one is playing). There are repeated sequences made to seem random but are deliberately unscored and build, quite suspensefully, to sentences like this: “In this way Eva, Mona, and Natalie take refuge on the partially covered rooftop. . . . Eva considers the rain, recalls the fish” (55). The characters enact but cannot entirely articulate the rush or what magnitude of risk. A flood? Hurricane Katrina?i “The light mutes behind gray clouds, such as winter, such as fish beneath the waves of water” (46).
Gladman continues this disturbing twist around what we think is happening and what we think is not happening with the next section, “Louie Between Cities,” which is more expository. Species, place, and time are malleable, contorted and under threat. The character “Louie” is now a dog, and reflects and expands on what occurred in “Street and Cello.” The roads are flooded with detritus, and bodies float. Louie witnesses the infrastructural and human wreckage on the streets, and makes direct address to his own lost companion. A catastrophic event and the abysmal, criminal failure of response have created an incomprehensible crisis and split between experience and reality. The perspective of a person is “channeled” through the perspective of a dog. Or vice versa? It is not gratuitously anthropomorphic. It is just that Louie the dog, as narrator, grabs attention such that we cannot turn away. Gladman writes, “Of course my thoughts went instantly to you. I was still without an answer, but I’d practiced a lie . . . . [B]ecause I did not have access to fact. And they accepted it, for indeed it was a narrative I could have lived had I . . . ” (60).
In the final section of the book, “Zone,” Gladman writes the epitaph, “after Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Stalkerii” (84). This film takes place in a desolate urban landscape, which is forbidden territory patrolled by the government. After the previous section, the exploration of Tarkovsky’s film here is a perfect gesture. The characters are called “The Writer” and “The Professor.” “The Stalker,” (“stalker” as in “tracking”), leads them through natural and preternatural obstacles to a room that may or may not grant their innermost wishes. It is post-apocalyptic allegory. Gladman re-tells the story (of a story) in bruising and elegant language. Small details and complex, impossible dilemmas fuel the unresolved “plot.” In her book as in the film, the element of water is a constant: mud oozes, water drips, pools form and transform. The room itself is a portal into the nearly biblical and Dante-esque unknown. As spoken by the film’s stalker character, “. . . The Zone is a very complicated system of traps and they’re all deadly…safe spots become impassable. Now your path is easy, now it is hopelessly involved. That’s the Zone. . .It lets those pass who have lost all hope. . . . ”
Renee Gladman’s characters are equally despairing with contracted emotion and desires. Whether the characters in the film enter the room is never revealed. Likewise, whether or not any of Gladman’s many characters experience resolution is left open. It is also of note that in this section of the book, her writing assumes a more recognized poetic structure with short lines forming a narrow column down the page as if leaving the reader with an inconclusive nod to form. She writes, “Because the worlds shift, I can’t/believe in either of them. The/power of the room remains/closed to us, thus I give the room/no power. I wish. Now watching/the water pour down” (93). These lines, perhaps invoking the book’s title—that the new, the untested, may be vulnerable or thwarted—that all of us are the “Newcomer.” Can we keep our heads above water? The last word of this extraordinary book “as” tells us that we do not yet know (104).“ - Denise Leto
Renee Gladman, The Activist, Krupskaya, 2003."Straddling fiction and poetry, Renee Gladman's writing operates on the level of the sentence, constructing suprise and oblique meanings at every turn, and somehow managing the supremely difficult trick of both engaging and pushing the reader. "THE ACTIVIST begins in the middle of a revolution....There is a bridge that may or may not have been bombed. People speak in nonsense and cannot stop themselves. In the mids of all this, the language of news reports mixes with the language of confession. The art of this beautifully written book is in how it touchingly illustrates that relations between humans and cities are linked in a more complex interface than most realize" - Juliana Spahr
"Whether this is a dream in which I'm captured or I've been captured and made to think I'm in a dream, I can't figure." Apropos to the rapturous tension The Activist evokes. A covert narrative operating as an event disguised as a repot. A grass trap glimpsed through the lashes of a sleepwalker. Topography of disrupted positionality, reflection girders flaccid memory against the romantic high up. Flea-bitten news and neuralgic placards. You are here**. Is dreaming the medium for crossing the ambiguous borders of talk, responsibility, collectivity, solitude? Or does reading anatomize a phantom bridge that carries you over to an unmappable reality and calls you by your secret name? Root, plan and faction, armed with tongue-tied intensity. You may ask how Renee Gladman knows that this city of slippage is your city, how she holds you within it, riveted. And therein lies the magic of this book.“ - Tisa Bryant
"Following up on her 2000 debut Juice (Kelsey Street), Gladman here pushes West Coast "new narrative" further into Kafka- and Poindexter-esque territory. A form of elliptical prose taken up in the '90s by writers like Dodie Bellamy, Mary Burger, Laura Moriarty and Camille Roy (and adapted by Gladman's peers Pamela Lu and Lytle Shaw), new narrative allows the basic elements of novels (plot, character, dialogue, specificity of setting) to run through the text without being sketched all the way in. By turns noirish first-person memoir and journalistic satire, The Activist depicts the goings on of a cell or affinity group that may or may not have blown up a bridge that may or may not have existed. Descriptions are inflected such that the names of characters (Lomarlo, Monique), their relations to each other (often same sex) and the way they talk ("This our downtown"; the title itself may be in the plural) put pressure on categories of race, gender and sexual orientation. The group may also have developed technology for emptying the memories of subjects, and controlling them Matrix-style, and their prevarications have a Godardian intellectualized haplessness. Yet the memory technology sets up the most powerful of the book's 10 sections, "The State," where it is unclear if the first-person narrator is being held by the government or by the activists, for what reason and to what purpose. The book works best as one of the first full-length mirrors held to the post 9/11 U.S.; in its targeting and rhetoric; it is something less than allegorical, more than a little chilling, and often very beautiful." - Publishers Weekly„A haunting and hilarious mix of dreams, news reports, confessions, and internal monologues, Renee Gladman's latest book is an absurdist political satire and a poetic consideration of points of contact among people, people and society, people and cities, and also, perhaps most captivatingly, between a person's sense of self in opposition to her sense of the Other or sense of herself as the Other. At the heart of the story is the J. Gifford Bridge, reputed by the government to have been blown up by activists. However, a group of scientists declare that the bridge has not been blown up and contend that it may never have existed as "a crossing point" at all, commuters protest their inability to use the bridge, and the activists themselves will "not admit to 'living a life among people.'" In response to the activists' refusal to communicate in codified terms, one government agent complains, "'Instead of a hunger strike ... it's as though they are issuing a logic one'--but then immediately added that he didn't know what he meant by that." Crossing points of all kinds are threatened, language continually fails to connect people as they unknowingly spew nonsense at one another, or have trouble saying what they mean, or aren't sure they know what they want to say, can't remember if what they said was what they meant, or if they said it out loud, or to themselves, or in a dream. In addition, maps go blank and the infrastructure of the city is attacked or perhaps never existed. Given these circumstances, everyone is afraid. The activists end one meeting because, "Each feeling himself so separate from the others began to grow tired, to grow heavy with that unassailable exhaustion--fear." And the primary fear is to be alone--physically, politically, psychologically. So characters cling to political movements or familiar-if-meaningless slogans in hopes of being swept up in the patriotic or rebellious fervor of belonging, as if this will solidify a watery reality or reconnect what may have once been workable crossing points. It seems unlikely that anything can mend the rift. The reader (along with the characters) is engrossed but dazed by the book's structure and style. And yet Gladman's prose is precise, and her book is strangely optimistic.“ - Danielle Dutton
„In an era of extreme paranoia, everything is about perceptions, not evidence, so everything can be spun to suit a cause. Not even a journalist can be relied upon to see clearly. These are the lessons of Renee Gladman's powerful prose poem The Activist.
The narrator of this book is a journalist drawn into a pressure-cooker tale of politicians versus activists. But she discovers following the activists is a dangerous business because objectivity is difficult to cling to in the presence of a swelling sense of righteousness and deepening commitment.
The cause? The cause barely matters. And it is not even easy to discern. Has a city bridge been bombed and destroyed or not? Such an apparently simple question is confused and confounded by the spin and the rest of the world looking on is required to make up its mind based on mere perceptions because there is no truth to be found.
With the administration putting its case and the evidence from others at odds with it, a specialist on perception theory and war summarizes it thus:
"This is the situation we're facing: a shockingly high number of witnesses claim that the bridge is in perfect form, the President of our nation is convinced that the bridge has been exploded, another group asserts that the bridge has collapsed, not exploded, and a handful of researchers contests that there never was a bridge."
The Activist is almost too explicit for allegory. It is practically a direct metaphor for current circumstances in the United States, where the book is set. And yet, it explores ideas that go far beyond the current situation and are applicable to any case in which civil liberties are at issue and a government is trying desperately to support its own agenda at the expense of the truth. It peers insightfully into the activities of activists and discovers their strengths and shortcomings.
Demonstrators are protesting the bridge situation, but the purported ringleader, one Alonso Mendoza, is not to be found. Yet, the absence of evidence is simply not acceptable to an administration hell-bent on proving its case:
"Three men -- Al Mendoza, Alejandro Mendoza, and Alpine Mencini -- were questioned at police headquarters about their political affiliations."
Later, as the administration's desperation increases:
"This morning, forces stormed the homes of Altar Mendleshon, Alvin Mendocci, Alsana Mendoza, and Alonso Mitchell in search of the spurious leader of the Commuters, now accused of three felony counts of conspiratorial behavior."
You can fill in the intervening time with quotes of your choice taken from newspapers since 9/11 and particularly since Iraq War II: Bigger, Badder, Bloodlustier.
But The Activist is not a mere polemic against the current administration's actions. A critical eye is turned on the activists involved:
This last declaration calls each member's wandering mind to attention. While the pitch of the utterance can be quickly characterized as Stefani's pitch, its authenticity is entirely suspect for most of the group. Alonso recognizes her, but the rest do not. Stefani, at once, registers the discomfort and obvious fluster of concern that infects them. However, her struggle to recall the precise words of her speech, to then correct them, yields no reward.
A map that mutates as some of the activists study it is a metonymic representation of the overall plan. The activists have trouble keeping track of their goals and end up doing what they are able to do rather than what they planned to do.
As time passes, the activists become less coherent as a group and less effectual. The administration is not any more successful but its force of overwhelming power leads directly to war. A war on what or whom is never made explicit, and nor does it need to be. Meanwhile, the activists turn inward and make their own war on each other.
Our narrator journalist has been drawn in to the battle, unable to remain an independent observer. But what did she experience? In the haunting chapter, "The State," the journalist is psychologically tortured -- but who got to her? Is it really the State or is it the Commuters? In any event, independence is gone and truth has lost it's only potential champion for this battle. The proliferation of extremism has won, with barely anybody noticing.“ – David Harris
Renee Gladman, Juice, Kelsey Street Press, 2000.„Gladman wields an idiosyncratic skill with description and characters that has drawn praise and attention from her contemporaries. JUICE describes a world where seemingly minor obsessions and details (like the narrator's almost random preference for juice) can structure and develop an entire story, down to its tone and style. As her narrator puts it: "So far it has been sex and leaves that keep me alive."
"About the body I know very little, though I am steadily trying to improve myself, in the way animals improve themselves by licking," begins Gladman's agreeably personal and expansively philosophical first collection of four fictional prose poems. Like the recent debut from fellow San Franciscan Pamela Lu (Pamela: A Novel), Gladman describes the strange dilemmas of selfhood when basic assumptions about who we are and why we do what we do have collapsed under various pressures, linguistic and otherwise. The opening 12-page "Translation" adopts various sociological poses to describe a people who "migrated off the `declining' coast" intent on discovering, via archeology and some odd logistical gestures, the secrets of its occluded past. In "Proportion Surviving," the "juice" of the book's title gets a delightful metaphorical ("I was happy. I mean, I was in my juice") and recollective workout from a Proustian glass of apple juice, to stalking the bottled aisle of the grocery store, to a love "crisis" that finally gets the speaker off it, seemingly for good. In "No Through Street," the narrator's sister wins fame for painting a series of functional but nonstandard street signs, setting off a series of oblique meditations on race, intimate relationships ("if this woman is the directionalist whom everyone knows about, who is my sister?") and cultural capital. In the most fragmented but most evocative piece, "First Sleep," the search for a "Mrs. Gladman" is carried out amidst a series of "sleeps," as if identity itself can be discerned only in the synthetic, but punctuated, moments of the subconscious. Though one wishes at times for a more vividly descriptive language or more concentrated elaboration of the ideas, this is a rich and unusual collection, like an alien codex from a culture in one's own backyard." - Publishers Weekly
„When reading “Juice” you can't help to feel you are encountering something very intimate. And what feels at first as a document of self discovery, leads itself to become a play on the essential idea of discovering, of wondering and reaching for meaning, without the necessity of achievement. Gladman's language is powerfully unique, for it pronounces itself conversationally, yet is still buoyant in its philosophical games and acts of deconstructing through time-jumbling and non-linear associations. Emotionally, this story brings you into its poetry, its softness, and its deliberate reassembling of its narrative, artfully enough to give back a reflection of how you can fit meaningfully within its spacing.“ – Ritchie's Book Noise
„In Juice, Renee Gladman reconstitutes the narrative I in deliciously concentrated prose poems which pour past the limits that typically proscribe first person writing. But this is not to suggest that the liquidity of Gladman's I makes it untrustworthy. Rather, hers is a narrative presence that seems bracingly consistent in its expression of the paradoxes that are rife in any seeking to know, or in any attempt to express the implications of that search upon a subject's experience and condition of being:
I knew it was me
by the way my head felt: people find themselves in an
idea and feel so specified by the idea that they are com-
pelled to show it. Today all my ideas are liquid. (from "Proportion Surviving," 28)
Gladman is adept at presenting invitingly direct speech in which her readers will recognize her striving for absolute veracity as she describes her attempts to see—and to release herself from—sanctioned limitations upon our beliefs about what is known or knowable. We feel her fracturing the systemic constructions we take for granted which organize and constrain our sense of ourselves and the world around us.
A person makes a chart in her room; the room bears
a resemblance to the chart. Inside of the chart is the
periphery of the person's body. She places the chart
against the wall and stares at it. Half of the body falls.
I ran into the room and then quickly out of it, having
realized I did not want to be there. (from "First Sleep," 58)
Where typical narratives of the Western tradition would incorporate attempts to fill in—to make knowable—any gaps in logic, Gladman allows the chasms of alterity within her speakers to be exposed. One can see affinities between this project and texts like Clarisse Lispector's Stream of Life, which Helene Cixous introduces, saying:
It is always a question of beginnings. It is hard to imagine a text that would be more violently real, more faithfully natural, more contrary to classical narration. Classical narration is made of appearances, caught in codes. Here there are no codes. (x)
Like Lispector's, Gladman's text is also made up of beginnings—of appearances—that do not develop in expected hierarchical or chronological ways, but instead open into the disappearances in which the text abounds. While Gladman's appearances and disappearances do not conform to normative codes or systemic modes of thought, such systems are often alluded to:
To save this land I have to bring back archeology. As a child
this thought was implanted in me: In the appearance of
any species there is an element of disappearance and
within its disappearance a particle of return. And that is
why we have storage.
In our past there is a germ for survival, beneath our weath-
ered clothes and yellowed papers, a propellant of time.
If I wanted to I could spend the rest of my days devoted to
time. Or end the township here for something on the other
side of the mountains... (from "Translation," 19)
Gladman dices and skewers the discourses through which our ideologies manifest—the ways we typically, with scant awareness, speak of history, culture, time—then she seasons with a diction that is incontrovertibly calm, and roasts her language in the flame of a syntax that is subversively direct. What we are served fills us with the emptiness of seeing through the gaps in our signifying systems, and into a subject's unknowability and otherness.
The juice on my mind was no longer
juice. There was an absence there, but one so constant it
became familiar. I did not want to drink it. (from "Proportion Surviving," 28)
Concomitantly, her strategies also allow us to observe othernesses that are "disappeared" or "displaced" by the norms of dominant culture in the external world. Thus, each of the prose poems that comprise Juice has at its center an inexplicable appearance of absence, disappearance, displacement—one that might encompass private as well as public, and internal as well as external, loss—whether of a culture, a community, a relationship, a period of memory, a sense of self.
Between the moment fifteen years ago when I turned the
corner away from Hershey Street and a year later when I
"woke up" outside a Midwestern hotel, there is water
where memory should be. There is evidence in my bags,
my pockets, that made me think I had been on trains.
There was a way I kept looking over my shoulder—
back east—that reminded me of trains. So that's where I
assumed I had been, and that is where I went. (from "No Through Street," 34)
Gladman's representation is rich with such losses, as if to clarify that any narrative is as much about omission as it is about incorporation. Juice is dense—"pulpy", I dare say—with emptiness, with what can't be brought into consciousness with words, reminding us that any language is a narrowly limited container shaped by the proscriptions of the past. But, in Gladman, we find exemplified not only Frederic Jameson's premise that we are "imprisoned" in the language of our particular temporality; also demonstrated is the value of filling language to the breaking point with a palpable attention to that imprisonment.
Of course, heightened attention of this nature doesn't necessarily mean the prose will include a high degree of specificity. In the excerpt quoted above, we are told: "There is evidence in my bags, my pockets, that made me think I had been on trains," but we are not told what that evidence might be. Here Gladman is deftly exposing the mecurial workings of mind—in this instance we see the ways mind uses its system of preconceived ideas to sort the data of experience. Gladman is exquisitely subtle in reminding us of just how much specifity a mind may unconsciously ignore in its environment when coming to its conclusions.
Of course, we need the mind's systems of stimulus-selectivity in order to manage the enormous infusion of material that must be processed in any instance of living. But it is exactly such scissions between using habituated experience and attending to the shock of fresh insight that Gladman watches shut and open, open and shut. Often her most disruptive shifts of narrative development expose the enormous energy flow of this process, and suggest the myriad directions of thought and alternate paths of knowing that any instant offers. Gladman's narratives, rather than simply progressing forward in linear fashion, accrue such eliptic disruptions spacially, exposing a sequencing that is as close to three dimensional expansion as one might come in articulating a subject's perception of a situation. Pressing such limits allows Gladman to point almost simultaneously in many directions toward what arrives in the gaps between our language's ability to express what we perceive.
whose easy chair gave way to my failures moved out of
town the next week, and though I miss her it was the fail-
ures that saved me. On every other day of any kind of crisis
one finds particular sayings helpful. If certain words are
spoken quietly into a cup of hot water, with the handle of
the cup of water turned towards the wall, whatever strength found
in the person may be mirrored in the wall. The person
leaves the house with her hand against this wall but strut-
ting slightly. (from "Proportion Surviving," 26-27)
Exposed in sections like the one above are both the fragility and limitations of mind's attempts to account for—and to preserve some faith in making comprehensible—any causality in event, as well as the apparant discrepancy between these mental propositions and the fleeting reality that mind would capture in them. But by exposing such discrepancies, such boundaries, such limits in the frames of perception, Gladman also points us toward intuiting the shifting expanses beyond them.
Such use of the narrative I neither ignores, nor is limited by, the parameters of traditional first person, which, as Luce Irigary has explained, projects its own ego onto the world and then sees only its own reflection. Gladman incorporates into her text the complexity of a narrative I that refuses mastery over either "itself" or the "other" it cannot incorporate. Through this unsynchronizing lens's paradoxical optic acuity, Gladman focuses upon stories that enact some of our era's most provocative cultural and philosophic questions. Gladman transgresses, even as she writes through, the private and public paradigms we find constraining a speaker's subjectivity—whether in the role of community member, artist, lover, daughter, or sister.
I was aware of the possibility of an actual encounter
between my sister and me, but I went anyway—suddenly
prepared for everything. All past and all future, at once,
and any other knowledge that might come up. (from "No Through Street," 43)
As Marjorie Perloff has expressed it: "poetic 'uniqueness' in our postromantic age is less a matter of authenticity of individual expression than of sensitivity to the language pool on which the poet draws in re-creating and redefining the world as he or she has found it." (Italics are Perloff's. From Wittgenstein's Ladder, 187) Gladman's text is "juiced" with a concentrated awareness of our thirst for knowledge outside the paradigms that constrain our knowing, and the richness of Gladman's sensitivity to our culture's language pool only heightens the headiness of her work's textural and textual flavor and flow. Fill your glass with Juice; you'll want to take many long swallows.“ – Rusty Morrison
Renee Gladman: Proportion Surviving