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“Desert travellers, lunatic runners and nomads of the steppes”: the recent work of Lance Olsen, Bonnie Bee, & Harold Jaffe (Anti-Oedipus Press)

To bid farewell to a difficult 2020 and welcome a more hopeful 2021, David Vichnar of Equus Press has penned a series of mini-reviews covering the best of contemporary independent small-press production, each instalment dedicated to three of their most recent & interesting titles. In the fifth instalment, the focus is on three books—one older, two quite recent—brought out by Anti-Oedipus Press (AOP).

AOP is run by the indefatigable, singularly devoted & marvellously provocative D. Harlan Wilson, whose Natural Complexions has been published by Equus, and to whose own recent work the next instalment of this series—on Raw Dog Screaming Press—will partially be devoted. As stated in their mission statement,  at AOP they “publish anti-oedipal fiction, nonfiction, antifiction, outrefiction, cryofiction and superzerofiction. We are the enemies of tree-logic. We are the nth degree of meaning. We are desert travelers, lunatic runners and nomads of the steppes.” Just what this multiple reconception of “fiction” might entail is illustrated by each of the three books covered in this review.

Lance Olsen’s [[ there. ]] is, according to the publisher’s blurb, “part critifictional meditation and part trash diary exploring what happens at the confluence of curiosity, travel, and innovative writing practices.” Written—or rather copied-&-pasted, then cut-up-&-folded-in—during his five-month stay at the American Academy in Berlin, Olsen’s collage of observations, facts, quotations, recollections, & theoretical reflections touches on a wide range of authors, genres, & places, that all somehow have to do with “the restlessness known as Berlin.”

Small Press Book Review’s attempt at describing as idiosyncratic a text as this is as good as any: “[[ there. ]] is about countless things, each note building on or jumping off of the last, covering vast terrain in Olsen’s mind. The book builds a picture of its writer through art, language, literature, and travel. It shows how travel, and the powerful memories of travel, can draw out aspects of ourselves.”  It is significant that Olsen wrote [[ there. ]] while away from home because in it, place & experience become as important as identity, & travelling becomes a metaphor for reading/writing/thinking, & thus being, for “learning to travel is another way of saying learning to read” (37). As Olsen confided in an interview with Bookslut, the idea behind the book’s “collaging together of incommensurate narraticules” was “as an invitation to engage with [[ there. ]] as a kind of hardcopy hypertext” which can be read as the reader’s “time constraints and inclinations dictate.” An example of this hypertextual “reading as rewriting” is the LargeHeartedBoy review, which playfully reconceives [[ there. ]] as a song playlist—just by cataloguing & riffing off on all & sundry song-titles that Olsen’s “trash diary” manages to recycle for creative purposes (Bowie, Beat Furrer, Lou Reed, Miles Davis, Nico, John Coltrane, but also David Hasselhoff & Johann Sebastian Bach, if you can believe it). 

As a seasoned FC2 experimenter, Olsen is a present-day & original offshoot of Federman’s & Sukenick’s—both of whom are “there” in [[ there. ]])—practice of surfiction, which first of all foregrounds form & composition as determinants of content, & content as “logical” consequence of both. Or, to hear Olsen tell it, 

I’ve been tremendously interested over the past few years […] in how the structure of a piece of writing asks us to engage that piece of writing in unique ways that inflect the event of reading. With [[ there. ]] I asked myself what form best captures that strange sensation of contemporary traveling—both in the sense of moving from one location to the next, and in the sense of traversing a piece innovative writing (the challenging topography designed by another). […] 

For me, those sensations are similar: like clicking a link on a website: a surge of disorientation followed almost immediately by a surge of reorientation. And hence [[ there. ]]‘s structure: a kind of trash-diary collage comprised of observations, facts, quotations, recollections, and theoretical reflections.

It is rather apposite that the “trash diary” passage is itself a quote from [[ there. ]]—which describes itself as “a constellation of sense, thought, memory, observation, fast fact scraps” (10). [[ there. ]] itself is a radically disjunctive collage of “observations, facts, quotations, recollections, and theoretical reflections”, & thus presents a challenge to meta-discourse (as e.g. that of this review). 

The critic is tempted to fill the space of this review with quoting & re-splicing & re-cutting Olsen’s marvelous quotes & re-splicings & re-cuttings: one of the many ways [[ there. ]] makes it both eminently easy & difficult to write “about” & “around” it—one always finds one’s critical response somehow included, & thus pre-empted, within it: according to one of its many repurposings of found-text, “in the end, inside always becomes outside (122). As Big Other Review’s piece has noted with a sigh, “Quotations of quotations. The lines are sharp; mostly they bring things into focus, mostly we nod in agreement. But quotations of quotations of quotations …”

So one pays one’s critical due by zooming in on the two opening quotes from Heidegger (via Wayne Koestenbaum) & Derrida: how “not-being-at-home” is a more “fundamental” human condition, & how its most everyday manifestation is “being-at-a-hotel”; & how “the unrecognizable is the awakening. It is what awakens, the very experience of being awake” (9). The setting of Berlin allows Olsen to explore, of course, the German language & history, both of which are uncannily close to, intertwined with, yet alien from their Anglo-American counterparts. This interlingual meeting gives rise to a few irresistible puns, as when “O.’s” his allergy to cherries (Kirschen) becomes (mis)pronounced & (mis)translated as allergy to Kirchen=churches, “which, of course, is true as well” (9); or when the ungeheures Ungeziefer of the opening gambit of Kafka’s Verwandlung is regurgitated by an online dictionary as “enormous swarms” (24); or when the banal fact of the German word Gift meaning “poison” gives rise to a fascinating 1-paragraph etymological excursus into (for)giving & receiving (27); or when JFK’s famous self-identification with a jelly-donut (19) is later on détourned as “Ish bin ein Bearleener (34). 

Berlin’s proximity to Prague conjures up the spectre of Kafka, to whom Olsen pays tribute by calling his autobiographical altered-ego “O.” & punctuating his Berlin-based dérives with his many trips to “Kafkaville” (to borrow from Louis Armand’s Breakfast at Midnight) & the ghost’s visitations. As when during his visit to Prague Castle, O. realises that “the great mistake is to fail to realize Kafka has always been a realist” (85); or as when  Die Verwandlung is described as “an allegory about continuous change, which is to say an allegory about travel” (22), & so as virtually everywhere in O.’s own [[ there.]]. And so on, & so inexhaustibly forth. Olsen’s picture of Berlin is universal & macrocosmic because it is profoundly personal & microcosmic. Just as Joyce & Pound & Eliot but differently from them, Olsen manages to forge in his “trash diary” of personal idiosyncrasies the “uncreated conscience” of the foreign non-place that is Berlin. 

But this has gone on for too long already on the conceptual/thematic plane without any attention paid to the idiosyncratic form & punctuation of the book, as well as its uncanny title. The book is made up of a sequence of short passages, many just one- or two-liners, very few exceeding three shortish paragraphs. The “sequentiality” is seldom if ever linear—an idea started in one textual fragment is never developed in the succeeding one, which more often disrupts, digresses, distracts from it, but is more likely to be revisited at some later stage. An extreme example of this is the wonderful Czeslaw Milosz quote, “the purpose of poetry is to remind us how difficult it is to remain just one person”, introduced on page 17, which resurfaces repurposed a whole 65 pages later on page 82 as section “3.6” of O.’s “fiction in the form of a Table of Contents” (71) that punctuates [[ there.]]’s second half.

Each of these passages is introduced by “::::”, one of two new punctuation marks employed by O. & explained—via Heidegger—as follows: “:::: is for ‘not-being-at-home’, for ‘what cannot be articulated accurately’” (28). The other punctuation mark introduced is “[[   ]],” this for “what must be removed from the chronic to be experienced” (29). And so, just as Heidegger & Derrida have put the notions of Western metaphysics “under erasure” as “inadequate but necessary,” so as to redeploy them more (meaning)fully, Olsen’s [[ there. ]]puts the notion of presence & emplacement into double brackets, as one is doubly more absent when one “speaks” of one’s place, & triply so when one writes about it. Quoth Big Other Review, [[ there. ]] is “an always-already bracketed performance about how, by inhabiting unstable spaces, we continually unlearn and therefore relearn what thought, experience, and imagination feel like.” And also: “Because … Which is to say that … How … So many of these passages begin as if we are already in mid-thought, as if we are carrying on a conversation that has always already lasted for some time.”

Which brings us back to Berlin, which is both incidental & essential to [[ there. ]]’s textual bricolage. It is incidental because Olsen’s “trash diary” is translocal, & performs operations on its emplacement that it could perform else- & anywhere: trips around the world, from Finland to Cambodia to Kenya, & back, are recalled throughout. But it is also essential because if the doubly bracketed [[ there. ]] of the title stands for [Berlin], then its punctuation serves as the visual emblem of enclosure, cutting off & marking a division line—like the Wall this city was so infamously divided & united around. And Berlin’s “other” past is always also still “there”—O. & his wife Andi spend their 5-month getaway on the shores of the Wannsee, with a view across the lake of the villa where, in January 1942, the conference took place that finally solved the “Final Solution”. Says O., “It’s always Stunde Null, Zero Hour, in Berlin” (46).

Which brings us to that other bizarre feature of the title, the full-stop in [[ there. ]] which again has been assiduously avoided for too long. The fourth dimension of space, of any thereness, is of course time, present especially palpably when you have 5 months only to “make yourself at home” in a foreign place, as when you only have 140 pages of your thrash diary to write (& to read). The full-stop ultimately has to do finality—of dwelling in/thinking about/writing on Berlin, but also of all dwelling/thinking/writing. And so it doesn’t surprise that [[ there. ]] ends with long lists of famous writer-suicide (catalogued by method & weapon of choice), with a poignant account of O.’s last meetings with his dying mother as well as the dying Ron Sukenick, with ironic meditations on O.’s own mortality & future obscurity (“I think I’ve heard of Lance Olsen. I wonder who he was. People in 50 years won’t ever say.” [132]), & finally, with this envoy:

Which in the end is to understand fully by not fully understanding that no matter where we live, or for how long, no matter how we read or think or write, or in what configuration, we’re all just paying by the hour. (139)

As chilling a memento mori as any book which itself is on its last legs & about to diecan signal to its reader, except that Olsen’s [[ there. ]] is not only a grim elegy to a long-lost world. It is also very much about the here & now of cultural praxis & culture as politics, as of a polis. And so this critic’s personal favourites come when O. self-reflexively reflects (on the publisher of his own very book) that “small presses constitute important sites of aesthetic, political, and philosophical Anti-Oedipal resistance. They remind us with each publication that our writing, and hence our lives, can be other than they are” (43-4, my emphasis). A word-from-our-sponsor-type announcement done as well as can be, tied later on together with “the idea of literary activism”:

The importance, not only of writing, but also of editing and bringing out fellow authors’ work, reading and reviewing that work, producing essays about it, teaching it, talking it up, urging others to launch journals and indie presses, running reading series, laboring in arts administration […] getting out the word any way you can, because innovative writing isn’t just innovative writing: it’s a cultural urgency. (74-5) 

And so, to quote Bowie’s ultimate Berlin song, “Where are we now?” This is a book that manages to ask this one simple question time & again, & on so many levels at once, like few others. Where are you, dear reader? Where is contemporary “innovative writing”? Where were you, dear reader, before [[ there. ]] & where will you be afterwards? What is your [[ there. ]] like? Where will innovative writing be with a book like [[ there. ]]? Are you [[ there. ]]

One should be grateful to Olson’s [[ there.]] for inviting—no, not just inviting—drawing the reader into a highly creative, personally poignant & intellectually generous conversation across the many walls of language, identity, emplacement, & time, wherever their “there” might be. 

A different take on a fictional exploration of “what we inherit from generations before us” & how to “cut out what’s dead to repair the living” (Publisher’s blurb) is attempted in Bonnie Bee’s daring debut City of Boom, another worthy instalment in this review series’ long line of contemporary innovative short fiction. 

Two peritexts usher us into Bee’s uncannily familiar & foreign world. City of Boom is prefaced by a motto from Acker’s Empire of the Senseless: “But: We’re still human. Human because we keep on battling against all these horrors, the horrors caused and not caused by us. We battle not in order to stay alive, that would be too materialistic, for we are body and spirit, but in order to love each other.” Following that is an acknowledgment that 

Though there are many instances in this book of what you might perceive as borrowed: preexisting texts, actual events, books, movies, newscasts, fortune cookies, and real people. Know that reality is an illusion, everything you were told as a child was a lie, and any persons living or dead may be dead or living in other purported realities, so this is all coincidence and make-believe. (9)

Another reminder, if any further were needed, that so-called “fiction” might be often more “real” than “reality” which is largely “fictional.”

“Night’s Swift Dragons,” the collection’s opener, is an interior monologue of a dex-dropper, all written in single-sentence paragraphs without any full-stop. The delirious effect of the prose is brought home by the punctuation, of the grisly goings-on, through such shouts in the dark as “I don’t remember twelve hours at a time but I will remember you for the rest of my lives,” “Can I love or did the drugs stop my heart” & “I make a heaven of hell when I come, no babies, but I want a baby” (13-4). In a classic modernist retake of the expressive form, a mini-story about a trip on dissociatives itself becomes a dissociative trip.

“Blueshift” is the interaction between a 39-year-old divorcé father & his teenage daughter who is just “telling my father I want to move in with my mother” (15), to which the reaction is “Now Bonnie, dear, you do know your mother is terrible” because “she’s a crazy” (16). And yet, as becomes apparent in the understandably heated mind-speak self-argumentation that follows, both the father & mother are, first of all, “survivors”: he, of the fuck-up his life has turned out to be at midpoint; she, of brain surgery & the many attendant blessings thereof. The punchline of the story is as chilling as it is epiphanic:

My father says: Now dear, you can never come back if you leave. Crackle-pop goes something in my chest. But everything is fine. Even if it feels like brain surgery. Just a girl going through puberty, wondering if she’s going to be a crazy, too. Wondering if she’ll be a survivor, or a problem. Wondering why she wasn’t born a boy, or good, or why she doesn’t believe in god. (19)

“Crepi il Lupo” is an account of Salvatore, a Neapolitan mafia boss, & his encounter with death—“Nameless / the gold-flowered East-witch / who loves the whole night” (26)—and thus coming to terms with his mortality & crossing over into the great beyond. Punctuated with bits of concrete poetry, the story of man’s “last things” ends on a note of new-found humility: “Are you ready to depart, Salvatore?” “Please.” (34)

The eponymous “City of Boom” details the meeting of Jo & Jimmy, two lovers whose twin obsessions are sex & arson: “You want me so bad,” he said, and god fucking help me, I did” reads one description of the foregoing, & “We used to dance to the radio,” he reminded me, talking fog onto the glass” (38-9), reads another one. Bee’s style masterfully weds the sordid & banal with the poetic & profound.

As the first-person speaker of “The Fuzz” makes clear from the get-go, “I am painfully anxious. I have always been” (43), and the next 5 pages describing his attempt at soliciting his male cabbie. “I’m not looking for anything real, I have a wife and children, but…”—but the forbidden fruit tastes the sweetest & asks to be plucked. Anxiety when exchanging phone numbers afterwards, then, is impersonated by “a centipede inside my brain constricting as I handed him a piece of paper with a combination to a future conversation” (44).

“Underburning: Prepare an Era” is a parodic rewrite of Midsummer Night’s Dream, Oberon & fairies, except here they might be meeting at Nostrand Ave station & engaging in some furtive gay sex on the A train, which in turn is allegorised as a cleansing controlled fire “used in order to improve forest health, and reduce large wildfires” (50). Until the day’s over & “It’s dusk and we’re chasing away the shadowy monsters that look like us” (52). 

A couple of stories here are single-page, single-paragraph even, & read like bizarre spins on Kafka’s off-fables, like the following:

BULL AND SHEEP

We’re getting on so well, the Bull said. Isn’t it nice when we’re happy?

The sheep smiled. You always say that right before accomplishing something repulsive.

But these & other miniature gems aside, the high point of the collection is the longest piece therein, the crucial story-trio, “Carousel I-III”. Janie goes to high-school, & growing up next to her prostitute mother makes her, as the saying goes, wise beyond her years, or at least wise enough not to repeat her mistake:

Janie knew better. Kids were a trap. One by one, her high school friends had fallen into it, and while she didn’t know what was going to happen in the next year, she did know she was taking her pill every day at the same time, had a box of condoms and spermicide hidden under the bathroom sink, and $800 in her savings account to keep her safe from becoming the baby with a baby. (59)

The prose here is clinical & almost tragically banal. Janie & “Mama” have that special love-hate relationship only daughters & mothers can pull off, whose tenderness is brought home in passage like “Janie stared up, listening to the great I am of Mama’s beating heart, the depth of her breath” (62). 

Then, one quiet morning, “even though the television was muttering at Janie from the stand” (63), Janie watches the two planes hit the twin towers & her microcosm undergoes a similar seachange: on her tryst with an older scabby man “Sugar,” she has a sexual experience that can best be described as complicit brutalisation. This sets off an odd amorous affair, as everyone is a little rattled by the goings-on; even the “voice of reason,” Janie’s sister Emily, only present through her letters:

The only thing worse than a terrorist is a terrorist you can’t gun down, Chuck says. I don’t think that’s true. I think the worst terrorist is the one you can’t identify. I’ve learned to shoot, and every gun is heavier than it looks. (71)

In consequence of Janie’s affair with Sugar, Mama takes an overdose from her prescription bottle, is hospitalised, Janie’s father makes a brief wry appearance (“This is your mother… Don’t end up like your mother” [82]), & finally Janie meets with a patient in the adjacent ward:

“Who are you?” the woman asked again. “My name is Janie.” “You keep deflecting. I’ve often been Janey. My mother calls me Karen.” A smile threatened the edge of her mouth. “But I call myself Kathy.” “Why are you here?” Janie slouched back on the seat. “Botched abortion,” Kathy answered, and Janie’s body went stiff. (84-5)

That the Karen who calls herself Kathy is none other than Acker is brought home in the ensuing exchange:

Kathy’s sly sideways expression cracked open into a Cheshire smile, light glinting off her alloy tooth. Janie mirrored the expression. “They say I have cancer, but… cancer is big business.” “So, you don’t have cancer?” Kathy plucked one of animals from its parapet—a rat, matted fur and one eye missing. Kathy cradled it to her body as if it were her child. “Western medicine will kill me. They wanted to radiate me.” […] “Being Janie,” Kathy hushed as she closed her tired eyes, “is no easy thing.” (85)

Then, finally, in “Carousel III”, Janie dies “a small death, infinitesimal” (87), and is reborn as “A new body washed up on the cool shore of a coastland, on a turbulent king wave that flung it into the tall seagrass, where the prickly stems helped anchor it to the earth. A bloody jellyfish. Afterbirth” (87-8). Another conversation takes place on “Fire Island”, Janie as child & a wise woman, & the subject is being a woman:

“Was it hard?” “Yes.” “Did it hurt?” “Yes.”

“O,” the woman said, voice out of the bottom of a well, the smile in her voice gone. 

“Often?” “Yes.”

“I’m sorry,” she replied. “It’s not supposed to hurt the whole time.”

“Not the whole way. Some times were good.” […]

The woman’s so!, auburn hair smelled like alfalfa as the child pressed her face into it.

“You look so much like my mom,” the child said. “Crazy.”

“Crazy,” the woman replied. (89)

Bee’s stories are, no pun intended, “busy” with life lived badly but to the bone: their characters are misfits, ne’er-do-wells, criminals, drug-/sex-/violence-addicts, & the time spent in their company is not always time “well-spent.” 

On this “gritty and unflinching ride through the human condition” (C.V. HUNT), ancient allegory—Bee’s parodic pantheon also includes demons, a maiden, & a beast king named Oberon, of course—rubs shoulders with a camera-eye survey of contemporary pop culture & collective trauma. 

Chris Eyre’s blurb, describing the book as “a true anthology mixture of realism-rife-reality and highly-perceptive human natures clashing in spirited chaos,” is spot on: here, a story about one holiday spent setting fire to random places & fucking might sit comfortably next to a phantasmatic account of bizarre adventures in an adult-social-media-celebrity (who may or may not be the infamous James Franco) babysitting. 

Bee’s stories manage to create “myths out of common moments” & “legends out of unremarkable people.” City of Boom is a book that has somewhat fallen through the cracks of critical reception & despite/because of its “problems” deserves to be taken seriously & given its critical due.

As long as “life,” according to one of the many memorable definitions in this book, “is an infinite series of hungers” (139), then Harold Jaffe’s BRUT: Writings on Art & Artists is a series—finite even though recursive & fractal—of creative encounters with the “other” tradition. And so the focus falls largely on dissident activist figures in politics as in culture: Frantz Fanon, Jean Genet, Che Guevara, Antonin Artaud, Simone Weil, the Black Panthers, Clarice Lispector, James Baldwin, Nina Simone, Pier Paolo Pasolini… But “other” is not understood here in the sense of anti-canon or fringe—apart from the above, there are such canonical figures as Giacometti, Sartre & Camus, even Melville & Whitman, plus an interview with Marlon Brando—but “other” in the sense of conflict, of contestation, of pushing forward which always means pushing against.

Why “Brut”? In a recent interview with New Orleans Review, Jaffe details how 

canonical artists like Klee, Kandinsky, Giacometti, Balthus, DeKooning, and Rothko admired Brut artists because they are outside the social mores that enslave the rest of us. Brut artists can soar without hindrance, like the children in Blake’s “Holy Thursday” whose collective song breaks through the cathedral’s vaulted ceiling. And Brut artists can plummet beyond canonical depression. Brut artists suffer, of course, but most canonical artists would accept keener suffering in their circumscribed lives if their art were elevated thereby.

There are many layers in which the conflict between artistic “authenticity” & “the social mores that enslave the rest of us” at the heart of Jaffe’s approach to “tradition” is played out in Brut.

The two couples mentioned above—Melville & Whitman, Sartre & Camus—illustrate one of them. The two great “wound-dressers” of Civil-War America lived parallel lives both in time & space, and yet never met: even if they had, as Jaffe points out, theirs would have been, for all the similarities, a “missed encounter” as Whitman—although a “physically frail homosexual”—was essentially a “life-affirmer”, while Melville was, “like Hamlet, a melancholy introverted man” (59). And so what sets out as yet another exercise in Melville/Whitmancomparative box-ticking swerves toward the far more interesting—& darker—Melville/Hawthorne intertext, particularly Hawthorne’s misreading of the Moby Dick chapter on “The Whiteness of the Whale” (60). Sartre & Camus, then, were “comrades who became adversaries” (80), Sartre the ugly-womanizer celebrity with white privilege vs. Camus the “sensually appealing” colonised Algerian nationalist & anarchist vs. Sartre the Stalinist. Their falling out brining about a “menacing depression” in Camus, & their reunion only following his death in car accident & Sartre’s glowing obituary. These are just two of Jaffe’s thousand-and-one anecdotes which, though anecdotal in & of themselves, point towards the larger coordinates of the political-poetic struggles of the 20th century.

Then there are such lesser-than-canonical figures as Dick Gregory, whose career in comedy sat uneasy next to his anti-Vietnam and racial injustice activism; Bob Flanagan, whose lifelong cystic fibrosis condition was turned into an art-form, both in his highly graphic sadomasochist performances & in his posthumously published Pain Journal. But as Jaffe’s vignettes tease out, even (or perhaps especially) such marginalized figures have something essential to tell us about ourselves: “Dick Gregory evolved into what he had to become—Socratic logician, social activist, spirit guide, fasting until death’s door for peace” (53); “The condition out of which Flanagan created his art is, in extremis, our own condition” (71).

That the artistic personal is always-already political is brought into relief in sections like the one devoted to Mark Rothko’s “66 hacks into his body,” the “symmetrical pool of blood in which he lay […] eerily akin to one of his own canvasses” (25). Jaffe tells the story of his attendance, a year after Rothko’s performative & “artistic” suicide in 1970, of Rothko’s major retrospective at the Guggenheim. How, en route to the venue, he stops for lunch at a diner nearby & there, in the public john, he finds an almost illegible scrawl in one of the stalls, I will kill myself today black, an encounter that proves epiphanicTo hear Jaffe tell it,

I recognize now that my interest in “freaks’ dreams” was connected to my emotional recognition of the message to me on the cramped toilet door […] I knew—or felt—that the “plea” was addressed to me […] that I was to intercede on behalf of this evidently black human’s potential suicide. Intercede on behalf of the dispossessed who were prepared to murder themselves. (31)

And so, last but not least, there’s the docufictional element to Jaffe’s book, & so interspersed between these historico-critical vignettes are autobiographical anecdotes & experiences, which give the collection a feel that is “at once personal and detached, serious and satirical, familiar and esoteric.” How these two elements function in synergy is brought home by the following thematic arc. In the second tale, “Black Orpheus,” Jaffe relates an experience from back in 1975 when he lived with Guatemala with a partner identified as E. Typing away on his Olivetti what would become his first novel on Orpheus & Eurydice, the narrator watches his partner walk through their lush garden, only to suddenly disappear in front of his eyes, a victim, it turns out, of a not-so-tightly boarded-up old well. “I remember my precise response,” he tells us, “Was it ‘real’?” (12), and even more strangely, “with her deep in the well, close to death, I feel for an instant the impulse to leave her there, let her perish” (13). He “recovers” his senses instantly, and soon enough, recovers her from the bottom.

And so when, some hundred-and-twenty pages later, in the penultimate chapter on the eponymous BRUT, Jaffe defines “art brut” as “Art that plummets without hindrance and soars without hindrance. The plummet is agony but without it there is no soaring. To plummet is the brut artist’s condition” (133), it is not difficult to see the connection with the opening personal vignette, to intuit the overarching arc brut of Jaffe’s book. 

The falling & the plummeting, the fighting & the losing, belongs to all those who resist, who push further. The flying & soaring is their recuperation at the hands of such sympathetic understanding “docufictionists” as Jaffe. In politics just as in poetics: as the publisher blurbmakes clear, in every instance, “it is not just the mind of the artist, but the heart-mind, the felt passion,” that Jaffe’s series of medallions teases out of its subject. 

Or, as Larry Fondation has pointed out, Jaffe’s “brief biographical vignettes are not just illuminating, but revolutionary.” The extraordinary range of films, writers, painters, philosophers, & “outsider” artists covered in Jaffe’s BRUT illustrate the conflict between artistic vision & “the social mores that enslave the rest of us” & that, as Jaffe’s collection shows, have usually been of the racist, classist, & sexist kind. 

New Orleans Review again: Brut lays bare “writers and artists, their creations and obsessions, their conflations and flagellations of self. But instead of treading the well-worn paths of ‘art as politics’ or ‘life as art,’ Jaffe blows up all possible paths.” As long as, quoth Jaffe himself, “we are in 2020, and the center has shredded” (21), why not do without the center altogether? BRUT is certainly one type of artistic-literary-political docufiction that attempts & achieves just that.

My next instalment, in roughly two weeks’ time, will be devoted to Raw Dog Screaming Press.

© David Vichnar, 2021

About Equus Press

EQUUS was established in 2011 with the objective of publishing innovative & translocal writing.

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"Modernity today is not in the hands of the poets, but in the hands of the cops" // Louis Aragon
"It is the business of the future to be dangerous" // A.N. Whitehead

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"Poetism is the crown of life; Constructivism is its basis" // Karel Teige

Goodreads

“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for?…we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us” // Franz Kafka, letter to Oskar Pollack, 27 January 1904
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