Constance DeJong - a forgotten classic of narrative prose innovation. Working largely alone, DeJong invented a narrative form that's at once intimate and highly constructed. Wilder than the French nouveau roman, Modern Love cannibalizes genre and realist fiction
Constance DeJong, Modern Love, Primary Information & Ugly Duckling Presse, 2017. [1977.]
"...a forgotten classic of narrative prose innovation."
"People used to tell me, if you keep on writing maybe you'll make a name for yourself," New York-based artist and writer Constance DeJong (born 1950) wrote in Modern Love. "They were right: My name's Constance DeJong. My name's Fifi Corday. My name's Lady Mirabelle, Monsieur Le Prince, and Roderigo. Roderigo's my favorite name. First I had my father's name, then my husband's, then another's. I don't know. I don't want to know the cause of anything." Modern Love, DeJong's first book, was published in 1977 by Standard Editions, an imprint co-founded by DeJong and Dorothea Tanning. In 1978, the text was adapted into a 60-minute radio program accompanied by the "Modern Love Waltz," a piano composition by Philip Glass. In this new edition, DeJong's debut novel is brought back into print, her dissonant shifts of voice and inimitable staccato rhythm made available to a new generation of readers. - Artbook
Constance DeJong's long-neglected, late-1970s novel, Modern Love, is one thing made up of many: It's science-fiction. It's a detective story. It is a historical episode in the time of the Armada and the dislocation of Sephardic Jews from Spain to an eventual location in New York’s lower east side. It is a first person narrator’s story; Charlotte’s story; and Roderigo’s; and Fifi Corday’s. It is a 150 year old story about Oregon and the story of a house in Oregon. Modern Love’s continuity is made of flow and motion, like an experience, it accumulates, as you read, at that moment, through successive moments, right to the end.
An important figure of downtown New York's performance art and burgeoning media art scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s, DeJong designed Modern Love herself and published it with help from Dorothea Tanning on the short-lived Standard Editions imprint. Critically acclaimed in its time, Modern Love is now back in print exactly 40 years since its original publication. Co-published with Primary Information.
In the 1970s, Constance DeJong’s Modern Love played a critical role in Downtown’s invention of post-modernism. How? By transporting us to other states of being, we got to visit Soho, Elizabethan England, and India. Why is this book considered part of the visual art world? Because everyone was doing everything — and Modern Love exactly captured its time.—Martha Wilson, Franklin Furnace
Written between 1975-1977 from the heart of New York City's art world, Constance DeJong's Modern Love is a forgotten classic of narrative prose innovation. Working largely alone, DeJong invented a narrative form that's at once intimate and highly constructed. Wilder than the French nouveau roman, Modern Love cannibalizes genre and realist fiction and travels through time to explore the dilemma of being a 27-year-old broke female loser who's told by the culture that she's "free to say and do anything I want". A powerful influence on her contemporary Kathy Acker, DeJong's Modern Love feels even more radical now than it did when it first came out."—Chris Kraus
Modern Love is a post-modern classic, finally back in print. The classic cover, in fact, may mislead the reader, much the way DeJong's narrative guides and misguides the reader. The language is beautiful. The whole thing is brilliant.—Anne Turyn
A touch cut-up-like crazy quilt of patches that seem to come from historic novels (the Armada), “modern Romances,” and personal confessions from the new-wave world. In fact, DeJong writes with an easy grace, low key and precise. The shifts from persona to personal, or from first person to third, or even from the present to some historical event, seem unformulistic. In fact, when they work they seem natural, which is a tremendous accomplishment with this kind of writing. DeJong is one of the best of the new writers that emerged along with the new music, etc. from the mid-seventies scenes only now gaining recognition.—Michael Lally, Washington Review
…if her (DeJong’s) relation to standard linear narrative has been less than conventional and her willingness to forego the novel format in favor of a wide variety of expanded media has been consistently experimental, her efforts constitute not so much a rejection of the inherited forms of fiction as a desire to bring them into the context of late 20th-century experience.—Carlo McCormick
DeJong is a storyteller from some pre-Homeric era when all tales were polished by their repeated public telling—a conceit of course: her work is written but it has the quality of having grown out of recitation. To listen to her is to be seduced.—Ann Sargent-Wooster
The exploits of an eccentric cast are transformed into a showcase of the range and possibility of fiction in this reissue of De Jong’s 1977 novel, a rare experimental work that renders the shedding of convention with genuine joy. “Everywhere I go I see losers,” De Jong begins her book, “misfits like myself who can’t make it in the world.” Her main subjects are writer Charlotte and musician Roderigo, who are brought together in ’70s New York by “something essentially feminine and masculine” despite being “slow to accept the ties of love. Ties were loathsome and love was suspect.” Charlotte is fixated on Roderigo’s Sephardic heritage, which becomes a jumping-off point for an exploration of Roderigo’s exiled ancestor Ruiz’s arrival in Elizabethan England, a place and time when “the world was full of energy and spangles.” From there, De Jong leaps to the future and a hardboiled detective tracking down the now reclusive Roderigo on the coast of Oregon, where “the fantastic and the ordinary live side by side.” These radical shifts in setting, tone, and genre are bewildering, but De Jong’s authority over her story is absolute, breathing fresh life into the familiar premise of bohemian ennui. “One tiny insight is not enough,” she writes in acknowledgment of the limits her book for “losers” might have, “but it’s a start.” - Publishers Weekly
Constance DeJong’s novel Modern Love turns thirty this year, and it’s out in a striking new facsimile edition from Primary Information and Ugly Duckling Presse. The book comes kicking and screaming from a vortex of polyphony. Its two hundred pages wander from the downtown New York of the seventies to India to Oregon to Spain in the time of the Armada; it declaims on everything from Elizabethan fashion to the joys of cohabiting with cockroaches, with a long passage that’s straight-up science fiction. All of this should induce vertigo, or at the very least whiplash; instead the novel enshrouds the reader in a kind of patchwork quilt, comfortable even as it frays at the edges. Seemingly frenetic, Modern Love is ordered with great care; beneath its constant digression it settles into a ruminative, almost stately pace, encouraging capacious feeling on anxiety, sex, death, and work, often all at once. “I’m fanatical about sequence,” DeJong told Bomb recently, “and how sense and meaning can be made from a system of order that isn’t recognizable as alphabetical, chronological—one that has a different mechanism to the structure. That has always been fuel for my writing, and it has never gone away.” —Dan Piepenbring www.theparisreview.org/blog/2017/04/14/staff-picks-conduits-cockroaches-colored-paper/
New York isn’t the tourist trap. Rather, it’s the idea of New York. How many dreadfully dull “acclaimed” novels published in the last half-decade continue to promulgate the notion that New York is an image of the whole world? And it doesn’t matter which New York. The glammed-out, rotting New York of the 70’s. The New York gallery world of the 80’s, the lacerating handsomeness of its austerity spotlit by cocaine. The sleaze and wack-ness of Dinkins’ New York. Enchanted Brooklyn. New York’s cultural capital won’t be outspent anymore than Harvard’s endowment will. In other words, there’s no reason to go there.
What a mystery, then, that despite being so essentially of imaginary New York, Constance DeJong’s Modern Love should be such a refreshing and often poignant read. Of course, when this book was first published in the mid-1970’s, New York’s edges were as jagged as they were brilliant. In that moment, DeJong’s was a dispatch of a different sort, a pseudo-magical realist report from the frontiers of the previous decade’s flamed-out license and lapsed utopianism. Ugly Duckling’s decision to return Modern Love to print would seem to answer the call of two present imperatives: to further the process of correcting the canon, cracking its vault door to admit more historically marginalized figures; to get those of us accustomed to viewing the world’s intractability through lenses of gentrification, climate change and white supremacy thinking again about what revolution really entails. To that end, Modern Love doesn’t elevate dropping out as much as it asks those questions about individual choice — e.g., can you sell out to yourself? — that bedevil anyone hoping to reshape reality through the mere act of making.
Modern Love‘s own reliance upon well-established avant-garde tropes and violations of readerly expectations reflects the compass of this conundrum. The plot — young creatives navigate the interpersonal and professional frustrations of “having it all”; a life of the mind as well as a table with food on it — loses its own thread in “free love” and post-coital philosophy seminars as narrators shift from paragraph to paragraph and characters both change names and swap personalities. Whole pages are lifted from the annals of the Northern Renaissance and Dr. Strange comic books, and, like The New York Dolls, the entire enterprise revels in overtly aestheticized ugliness. The book’s very first line reads, “Everywhere I go I see losers.”
Indeed, from La Boheme to the amateur anthropologists taking buses to gawk at the native peoples of Haight-Ashbury, subculture has long been an object of some prurience. Modern Love gleefully (re)presents all the offenses with which lookie-loos having their first encounter with the demimonde long to stoke their disgust. (John Gardner would have hated this book. One can even imagine it serving as one of the models for October Light‘s high caloric trash novel-within-a-novel, Smugglers of Lost Souls’ Rock.) Which is also to say that Modern Love is something much more significant than a chronicle or document: it is, like the city at its actual best, a miscellany of sensibilities. Which is also to say it’s an exercise in form.
In place of a linear narrative’s hierarchies, Modern Love disappears into the wardrobe of literary types and, rather than playing dress up, digs in for a long purge. Orlando and The Nova Trilogy. Herman Hesse and Jorge Luis Borges. Raintree County and Peyton Place. As serial as soap opera and as sincere as a Very Special Episode, Modern Love‘s central fantasy turns on a very cosmopolitan conceit: that one can honor one’s origins most by successfully escaping them. Those two aspiring artists to whom the novel’s chapters circle back again and again — a female writer, a male musician — are both transplants from the suburbs of more middling American cities. Their ambition stems from a vague recognition that who they are is out of alignment with their destiny.
To point out that this quandary is not unique to New York is to quibble. The problem with Hollywood is that it washes out the real personalities of its stars and replaces them with wholesome nullities. What currency is more universal? (No question celebrity shadows the consciousnesses who occupy this book.) New York, however, mortifies. It’s blissfully, viciously unconcerned with where anyone comes from, because, in New York, there is no other place. “So much,” as DeJong writes, “for the melting pot.” Not surprisingly, the most affecting moments in Modern Love revolve around these characters as they confess their lasting fealties to their differing, and differently complicated, Midwestern parentages.
If self-invention is America’s most practiced secular religion, complete with its own catechisms of transcendence, then Modern Love is wise to squint at the artist’s faith in what as well as how their labor creates. Success dooms every art project, the ulterior motive of which becomes to vault its maker to the status of Artist. Yet nowhere is freedom less free from the high cost of impossible choices than in New York. Because, as much as artists protest the systemic inequities that make sticking to their principles so difficult, in the Art World, everything from success to failure ends up being personal. In one of Modern Love’s more overtly feminist narrative threads, love turns to hate as Rita (also known as Fifi Corday), a Parisian actress (or maybe she’s a dancer?) dramatizes her ten-year relationship with Jacques before an appreciative, if private audience. He accuses her of robbing him of his ideas, his genius, making a mockery of his life’s work — not that he’s made anything. But Art is male energy in this equation, and there’s only so much subjectivity to go around. Let’s call it an artificial scarcity of heroism. Either way, romance ends in sexist epithets and clichéd suspicions confirmed: “Jacques thought she’d finally revealed her true self. He’d always known that deep down inside she was a lewd crude, a contemptible woman. Now even Jacques was happy.”
The battle of the sexes exerts its gravity upon Modern Love, but you can tell DeJong is weary of the subject. During the 70’s, the Art World’s attitude toward feminine expression was still antagonistic, if not downright nihilistic. DeJong is gracious enough not to respond with her own form of nihilism. Instead, she’s as pragmatic as a Grace Paley. “The misfits I’ve been seeing everywhere, they aren’t real losers. They all have bank accounts: can afford to be losers. I’m broke.” All novels, of course, are commodities, and thus party to that system. Novels codify social relations, gossip, buttress ideologies by modeling personal desires. If pitched right against the axes of the zeitgeist, they can even be lucrative. But such novels routinely sacrifice the experiential at the expense of the thematic. While DeJong’s language can veer into perfunctoriness, the structure of Modern Love is a thing indeed. It’s only apparently anarchic. It doesn’t care about logic, nor does it follow the dictates of pure association, or exercise itself surrealistically. “NOT ALL COINCIDENCES ARE INTERESTING,” as one character muses in her notebook.
Rather, Modern Love simultaneously proceeds backward and withdraws forward. It’s in figuring out the often musical artifices underlying the novel’s double arc and keeping all its parts in motion that one feels most invited to connect reading Modern Love with pleasure. By the time we reach Book Five, we realize the novel has been leaving New York all along. The “whatevers” of the book’s final chapters betide themselves, quite literally, on a distant shore. Trapped by New York, these characters can’t be confined by it. Yet it’s not so much that they refuse to bow to New York’s pressures. In fact, their resistance isn’t active, or particularly “woke.” Rather, it’s contingent. Whether or not the accidents of the aesthetic passivity (that is, daydreaming) reflected in the novel’s own magpie design can bring about change where will cannot is a problem Modern Love is happy to leave unresolved. And that’s both a brave and exhilarating (non)-choice in an era when the novel has ceded its claim on the imagination. At its best, the contemporary novel is a fake editorial. At its worst? Another down-tempo, warble-saturated cover of “Can You Believe This Shit?”
Perhaps, then, its best to read Modern Love as a cautionary tale. Time travelers make the worst tourists. And all readers of novels are time travelers. The lesson of Modern Love can be summed up as, “Observe and be benign.” Which is another way of saying, “Interpret at your own risk.” This reviewer acknowledges that, in thinking about Modern Love and the question of why it merits reading, he is guilty of many anachronisms. That his circuit has not been the complete story of this book, or even its reappearing in 2017. But to unlo(o)se this literature means indulging more curiosities than any one reader can handle. So, read Modern Love because, after you’ve tallied yet another rejection letter, after you’ve sipped more shitty wine in that DIY gallery the fire marshall is soon to shutter, after the Baby Boomers have had history their way, and after you’ve survived your own Manhattan-inspired existential hellscape, what else is there to do but author post-modernism? Check that: rewrite post-modernism. And make no mistake: Modern Love is the Last of the Great American -Isms at its most nascent: its most sanguine and its most unruly. - Joe Milazzo
“I’ve been seeing too many artists,” Constance DeJong tells us at the beginning of Modern Love. “I can’t go through life looking at how objects are colored, cut out and arranged. I’m no painter.”
It felt like a living paradox, a wink from page seven as I was just beginning. Modern Love was considered a piece of visual art upon its first publication in 1977 due to elements of the visual art movement it reflected, seen in performances of the text by DeJong around New York City. It was originally written in installments, assembled in booklets by DeJong herself, and mailed to 500 people with the envelopes ordered by zip code. The writing and sending spanned from ’75-’77, and here I was in ‘17, reading inside this historic, artistic feat, “I’m no painter.”
What DeJong means by “painter” is eclipsed by writing that expands and contracts, falling in on itself as it sings and breathes. We travel to India and Paris, through time and into the past, as DeJong develops a narrative form that is raw in both story and feeling, that doesn’t question its logic, that indeed forms its own sense of logic.
Modern Love has been hailed as a contributor to post-modern thought and as an emblem of the artistic movements of the late 70’s. It crosses and obliterates genre, forming its own idea of how to tell a sort of limitless story. DeJong read it aloud at readings and considered it performance, realizing that she had the words memorized as she practiced. She wanted it to exist in the present, rather than as a book written in the past, and to this day, it comes alive on the page – reaching into the mind and wrestling with the senses.
The story begins in a dream-like state of unfocused focus, as DeJong weaves through observations of self-worth and the suspicion that she recognizes the people who walk past her. In the first paragraph, she tells us, “I’ve started seeing the same people. I think I’m seeing the same people. I wander around staring at strangers thinking I know you from somewhere.” We plunge into a world of vivid, unbridled thought, of analysis and memory and lack thereof. “I think I have to have a past,” she begins to muse at one point. “I think too much. A common malady.”
The first character we meet is a man she names Roderigo, because Roderigo is her “favorite romantic name.” We go on to meet more characters, people she admits to becoming, people she doesn’t just write about but embodies and lives with. She writes,
People used to tell me, if you keep on writing maybe you’ll make a name for yourself. They were right: My name’s Constance DeJong. My name’s Fifi Corday. My name’s Lady Mirabelle, Monseiur Le Prince and Roderigo, Roderigo’s my favorite name.
We meet all of these characters, and more, in different times and places. We meet them in the past and then they show up in our present. The story of Fifi Corday takes place in Paris – a sweeping, involved tale of her time as a performer studying under Marcel Marceu – and then transfers to DeJong’s apartment in New York City, where we find Fifi fast asleep in a corner. Monsieur Le Prince plays a strange, enchanting role, giving DeJong portals to the past from his home inside an ice cream store, only to show up in that past as both a villain and a lover. Roderigo’s story is the most consistent: he’s a piano player with various romantic interests, but even he is thrown between lucid and trance-like prose. DeJong’s characters are people and ideas all at once. She lifts the veil to show us where they come from: her. They are her.
The power of this novel is a power DeJong flexes, showing her control over the narrative circumstances in the most metafictional of ways. It’s confessional, in a sense—DeJong fesses up to her own power as the writer of this world, along with the options she has in wielding it:
[Something] tells me if I continue turning my insights into adjectives I’ll turn into a criminal. I’ll steal the splendor of this moment and commit it to a long, sorry sentence. I’ll murder people and bury them in gorgeous metaphors. I’ll mutilate events and objects, cut and arrange everything into pretty patterns. Into spectacular but empty images.
It’s the prerogative of the writer, and DeJong is frank about that. She can do whatever she wants, because this is all hers.
Modern Love is not just a book. It is its own form of art, one that pushes against the barriers of time and space. It’s an ode to creation, chaotic in formation, clashing and clanging as it whirls around itself. It’s a behind-the-scenes look, a broken fourth wall, a naked actor who is telling the story of their own life. It’s funny, it’s repetitive, it’s engaging, it’s dizzying – an experimental force that is, at once, all things. - |Gloria Beth Amodeo http://www.theliteraryreview.org/book-review/a-review-of-modern-love-by-constance-dejong/
A History of Modern Love (as told by Constance DeJong)
Constance DeJong by Jennifer Krasinski (Bomb)
The following are abridged sections from a longer work of the same title which comprises Book 1 of the novel, At Night.
Well-known for her contributions to downtown New York's performance art and media art scene of the 1970s and '80s, and considered one of the progenitors of media art, or “time-based media,” Constance DeJong has worked for over three decades on narrative form within the context of avant-garde music and contemporary art. DeJong’s writing extends off the page through the body, resonating out of objects and into the space of the theater. DeJong extends her prose writing into multiple forms— performances, audio installations, print texts, electronic objects, and audio and video works. In 1983, DeJong composed the libretto for the Philip Glass opera Satyagraha. Since 1983, she has collaborated with Tony Ourlser on numerous performance and video works. DeJong has also been a writing collaborator with The Builder’s Association on SuperVision, 2005. Her books include Modern Love, I.T.I.L.O.E., and SpeakChamber and her work is included in the anthologies Up is Up, But So is Down: Downtown Literary Scene (NYU Press), Blasted Allegories (New Museum/MIT), and Wild History (Tanam). She is a recipient of awards from NYSCA for Media Production, NYFA for New Genres, and the Daniel Langlois Foundation for Media Production, among others. She has exhibited and performed both locally and internationally at venues such as the Walker Art Museum, the Wexner Center, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and in New York at The Kitchen, Threadwaxing Space, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Dia Center for the Arts. DeJong teaches at Hunter College for the MFA and BA in Fine Arts.
Constance DeJong has cultivated a career as a writer and a performance, video, and new media artist since the late seventies. In 1978, she became a published writer with her first novel, Modern Love, which she adapted into a 60-minute radio text. Famed contemporary composer Philip Glass wrote a score of original music (Modern Love Waltz ) for this serialized novel. DeJong has toured extensively across Canada, Europe and the United States, giving spoken word performances of her narratives and collaborating with many other successful artists. DeJong is the recipient of numerous grants and awards including two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships (1980, 1986) and a NYFA New Genres Grant in 1990. Her published works include Modern Love (1977), Five (1986) and I.T.I.L.O.E. (1993). Her fiction has also been anthologized in Blasted Allegories, Wild History, and Top Top Stories.
In 1980, DeJong paired up once more with Glass, this time on the libretto and book for his opera Satyagraha. In the late eighties, DeJong began working with video artist Tony Oursler and has since teamed up with him on a whole range of projects. Joyride TM (1988), one of their first collaborations, was included in the 1989 Whitney Biennial. This 15-minute videotape offers a metaphorical exploration of theme park and museum culture. Presented at the same event was Relatives (1989), a performance collaboration between the two that integrated spoken word and video. To date, Relatives has been performed in some 25 cities around the world, including Amsterdam (the Netherlands), Zagreb (Croatia), Helsinki (Finland), Oslo (Norway) and New York (US).
In 1994, DeJong permanently installed a series of "talking benches" called Duets for Animals and People (1994) at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, Washington. And in 1995, she began her long-term collaboration with Oursler and Stephen Vitiello on the project Fantastic Prayers (1995-1998), a series of performances and installations, a Web site, and a CD-ROM, all commissioned by the Dia Center for the Arts in New York. DeJong is now working on a new media performance project called A.D., along with Steven Gomez Dean and Thread Waxing Space in New York.
Angela Plohman © 2000 FDL