Adam Tipps Weinstein - With subjects ranging from ‘graveyard shoes’ to Frankenstein, from gardening to Renaissance ruffs, Weinstein’s essays merge the erudition of Anne Carson with the speculative intelligence of Borges, all while investigating the ways our species both creates and inspires awe
Adam Tipps Weinstein, Some Versions of the Ice, Les Figues Press, 2015.
Winner of the 2014 NOS Book Contest, as selected by guest judge Fanny Howe.
“A flourish of secrets underlying cuffs and garden plots and the ice so fast approaching and receding. This is a happy book, sinister undertones reserved for the reader to recognize, if they are there at all. I love information. Uncanny information. The subplot and the reason for versions rather than certainties. Some Versions of the Ice is special, an original.”—Fanny Howe
“Some Versions of the Ice explores liminal spaces: where the real meets the unreal, where the physical world becomes imbued with the sublime. In their tension between order and chaos, Weinstein’s essays both formally and tonally dissolve the boundaries between myth and reality, appropriation and invention, nonfiction and fiction as they describe our search for permanence and order in an essentially chaotic world. With subjects ranging from ‘graveyard shoes’ to Frankenstein, from gardening to Renaissance ruffs, Weinstein’s essays merge the erudition of Anne Carson with the speculative intelligence of Borges, all while investigating the ways our species both creates and inspires awe. It is a hybrid field guide, an artist’s book, a personal cabinet of wonders. Weinstein’s book is a marvelous debut, one that I believe will beguile and bemuse, and ultimately captivate the reader.”—Paisley Rekdal
“The stunningly erudite essays in Adam Tipps Weinstein’s Some Versions of Ice are way beyond acrobatic ‘attempts.’ They are controlled crashes of trying language and heady concoctions of crazed content. Imagine (and you must imagine) Emerson ordaining the hieros gamos of Jorge Luis Borges to the conjoined twins of Susan Sontag and Martha Stewart. Here, Weinstein’s hyper-rational empiricism runs stoically and joyfully amok. He is the deadpanniest of deadpan prospectors, panning boatloads of precious metal, assaying whole new states of mannered matter.”—Michael Martone
It seems best to begin this with an underexplained quotation. In The Infinity of Lists, Umberto Eco writes: "Since infinite alternative worlds are part of each of the infinite Magnum Opuses, the angels will write infinite Daily Books in which they mix statements that are true in one world and false in another...at that point it will be very difficult to say which books are true and which are fictitious."
Eco is describing the concept behind the literary theorist Thomas Pavel's Fictional Worlds, but he might also apply it to Adam Tipps Weinstein's Some Versions of the Ice, out this year from Les Figues and winner of the 2014 Not Otherwise Specified Book Contest as selected by Fanny Howe.
Weinstein's book, like the angels' "statements that are true in one world and false in another," transposes fact and fiction, appropriating the one onto the other and vice versa. The essays' subjects form a strange, miniature Wunderkammer—graveyard shoes, a Braille that can be smelled, false pigeons, heaven-seeking collars, and ice-pick leucotomies—and like the objects of those Wunderkammers, the authenticity of these essays' provenances is doubtful but also not necessarily the point.
The fact/fiction debate is, at this point, a tired one in nonfiction and perhaps unfair to mention with regards to Weinstein since the author does not seem concerned with the debate in the first place. Yet Some Versions must be praised for not falling in love with its own cleverness when it comes to fudging; like any good comedian, Weinstein never sours the joke with too heavy a wink. Instead, he maintains a playful, satirical didacticism and reminds us the pleasure to be had isn't in sniffing out what's true and what's not (one can be fairly certain that pulque, the Mexican alcoholic beverage isn't made from the shoes of the dead, yet Weinstein's relation of the invention of the detachable collar does turn out, apocryphally, to be the case), but in catching scent of the epistemological hunt.
Eco's quotation also applies because it is, well, a quotation. Weinstein's essays are chock full of these citations, blocked and centered in the middle of the text, attributed (accurately or inaccurately) to names yet without further notation. The effect serves as both accompaniment and counterpoint, a way for Weinstein to show his research and thus his mind at work. He handles both with lightness and density. "The essay is born of books," Weinstein has quoted William Gass in the afterword, but he might also have added this: "The essay convokes a community of writers. It uses any and each and all of them like instruments in an orchestra...You can be assured you are reading an excellent essay when you find yourself relishing the quotations as much as the text that contains them."
And there are many excellent essays here. True, that epistemological hunt can feel more like etudes or exercises in some of the shorter essays. But in the longest and most enticing essays—"Scenting Braille" with its synesthesia and nostalgia, and "False Pigeons," with its overlayerings of reality and artifice between the passenger pigeon and a museum diorama— obsessions play out so that we see both the pull and pleasure of gathering knowledge, but also the dark allure that lies at the completion of any obsession: disappearance, if not extinction. In both "False Pigeons," and "Tabula Rasa or Some Versions of the Ice," with its medley of Arctic exploration, Frankenstein, and the warming undercurrent ready to wipe the world a blank slate, Weinstein achieves with the "untrue" essay what it might do best: he signals our own artifices and constructions and warns us that, although there might well be Pavel's "infinite alternative worlds," we are in this one and we should best watch what we do. - TMYL
The essays in Some Versions of the Ice are erudite, intertextual, and jarring—they combine the complexities of the natural world with those of the perceptions of it made by minds prone to error. With topics ranging from touchable language (Braille) to the history of the collar, this work was one I could not stop reading, circling, returning to. Weinstein begins the essay “Graveyard Shoes” with a Yeats quote so appropriate, it could easily be used to describe his own work as well, “This organism is now acknowledged by naturalists as belonging to the animal world.”
Up until I had read the acknowledgements of this book, where Adam Tipps Weinstein thanks Fanny Howe, I was convinced that the author had read The Wedding Dress and adored it as fervently as I had—so much so, Weinstein created the ultimate homage to it. In addition, every time I think that I have found the last person whose writing reminds me of Borges (in the lineup is Annie Dillard, Andrea Barrett, and the aforementioned Fanny Howe), I am joyously thrilled to find that there is another such creature in the world, writing in the kind of beautiful, beguiling, speculative way that challenges the reader to question what they know of fiction or reality. Weinstein’s work isn't that of magical realism. Rather, it is a collection of explorations in actual occurrences. In one of Weinstein’s essays, Heaven-Seeking, or Collars, he deftly details the history of the collar and how it relates to moralism in fashion. The reader may find oneself questioning, collar or no collar, their own morality, their own position on this mortal plane: “Though the styles varied,” he writes of Prayer Collars, “ the collar was almost universally worn in the stark white if naturally exposed bone, which was evidence that the collar was a holy thing.”
In other essays, Weinstein references unions that call to mind Plato’s “Symposium,” or Aristotle's retrospectively amusing experiments with botany. Whether Weinstein is discussing events or histories past or present, Some Versions of the Ice opens the reader to an unexpected exploration of the ways, and depths to which, we think. - July Westhale
Every one of these pieces is absolutely sincere: An interview with Adam Tipps Weinstein