The Edge of the Object [book review]

A tripartite journey—both geographical and emotional—Daniel Williams’s debut novel The Edge of the Object follows the highs and lows of a young Englishman living in France for a period of six months. The book as an object is striking to behold: three perfect-bound A4-sized volumes smartly dressed in the colors of the French flag and packaged in a screenprinted and letterpressed case—all designed and produced by Tim Hopkins of London’s The Half Pint Press. The prose found within is equally well crafted, with the book’s design complementing it nicely.

Taking cues in part from the work of Georges Perec, this novel is simultaneously a celebration of French culture as seen through the Francophilic eyes of a post-collegiate young man, and a keen look into the headspace of a person far from home, isolated by way of a language barrier he is only partly able to breach and yearning for human connections beyond what he often feels capable of. An erstwhile photographer, the unnamed narrator feels alternately liberated and hamstrung by the absence of his Leica—the camera offering a valid excuse to be present at a remove while also preventing true engagement in any given experience. This tension resulting from being camera-less clings to the narrative, as we watch the narrator struggle to engage with his surroundings—taking as many steps backward as forward in this endeavor—as he moves from place to place.

Williams writes with exacting precision—mapping the interior emotional journey of his narrator as carefully as he describes his geographical progress through France. He has a journalistic eye for detail, snapping word-images in lieu of photos and placing scene after scene in front of the reader with aplomb. Moments of wry humor and painterly passages of the French countryside counter the heaviness of themes of left-behind love and debilitating incidents of migraine headaches. Also tempering the at times somber subject matter, the pages of the first and third sections of the book are graced with striking calligrams—images sculpted from the words on the page and representative of a central theme or object on each page. These calligrams gently encourage the reader to slow down or speed up accordingly, keeping step with the pacing of the story.

The first part of the book is written in second-person point-of-view—unusual but appropriate to the experience of being in a rural area of a foreign country, surrounded by its natives, yet only with a workmanlike grasp of its language. The central character is living in a falling-apart cottage, not much more refined than a cave (and perhaps even less dry). Whenever nature calls, he must journey through a warren of gardens to reach the privy, and—adding to the inconvenience—the only running water for washing up is also located outside. It is hard living, made even harder by his isolation.

In the second part, the point-of-view segues to first person as our man reaches the big city of Paris and makes contact with the first of a series of friends he will spend time with over the coming weeks. Gone are the calligrams in favor of straightforward text blocks, as the focus in narration begins to point outwards in concert with the narrator’s efforts to interact more with the people around him. He soon meets up with a friend’s indie pop group on tour and joins them for a number of club dates around the country, during which he becomes interested in a woman whose feelings toward him are slippery at best.

The final part of the book returns to calligrams and the second-person distance, as the narrator backtracks to his lonely cottage existence. Here he comes to a decision about one last adventure to embark upon before his trip comes to a close. This jaunt provides a suitable denouement to his time in France, as we feel this fellow we’ve traveled so closely with start winding down and perhaps pine a bit harder for home. And indeed, the last page finds him back in England with his camera once again in hand—facing a future unknown but now fertilized with a rich new layer of experience from which to grow, perhaps out beyond the self he became too much of while away.

And yet, while these six months have taken you further from the excesses of the world than ever before, they have plunged you into an excess of time, of memory, and of yearning. If anything, you have become too much yourself.

[Limited print copies of the book may still be available, and the ebook has recently been released. Details at The Edge of the Object site. See also Williams’s essay in The Quietus on Perec’s novella A Man Asleep and its connection to this novel.]

get your trinkets

The GPA archivists have begun a new series called ‘Trinkets’ that will explore the theme of Smallness. For this series, one collaborator provides a series of three photos to the other collaborator who must then caption them. In the first installment, we follow the escapades of a tiny cat who escaped from its tiny box.

new gpa interview

The GPA archivists managed to track down and interrogate…erm, interview a fictional character in a collaborative Victorian novel, who may or may not have also been the author of an extraordinary number of popular but now forgotten novels.

publications update

A Set of Lines front coverA Set of Lines is now available through the Ingram distribution network, so basically from anywhere that sells books. However, it will likely only be on the physical shelves of bookstores where I sell it on consignment. Currently that includes Quimby’s in Chicago and Atomic Books in Baltimore. If you’d like to support your local bookshop you can either ask them to special order it or you can order the book from Bookshop.org, where independent bookstores receive the full profit from each sale. You can designate which store you’d like to benefit, or it will go into an earnings pool that is distributed equally among independent bookstores.

Hatred of Writing, Bunker Diaries, and Inner Harbor Field Reports have also been restocked at Quimby’s Bookstore and Atomic Books. There are order links at the bottom of both of those pages. These are the last copies, so when they sell out these titles will be out of print.

No new publications on the horizon at the moment, but maybe that will change soon. In the meantime, I’ll be continuing to collaborate on writing for Ghost Paper Archives.

take shelter [film review]

[Third in a series of ekphrastic responses to the films of Jeff Nichols, written following a recent second viewing. First. Second.]

A cloud formation, colored rain falls.

The wavery grass—below seething sky confounded by murmurations.

A failure to communicate—an oily sheen—some of it you cannot rub away.

Open mouth gasps wake from dark dreams. A life unbalanced.

A state of confusion within your small family. Your wife and daughter. Your hallucinatorium.

Silence stretches except when thunder strikes…

A visit to mother—there was a history:

‘Do you remember what happened before you were diagnosed?’

[…]

‘I just want to know what happened before you had to leave…’

‘There was always…there was always a panic that took hold of me.’

Electric sky at night—jagged streaks above the fields: ‘Is anyone seeing this?’

Dig a big hole in your yard. It seems logical—like the only thing to do.

‘Are you out of your mind?’

‘I’m doing it for us.’

‘You’re right I don’t understand.’

‘There’s nothing to explain.’

But you sit across from her and try anyway.

‘Dark thick rain like fresh motor oil…’

‘It’s not just a dream, it’s a feeling. I’m afraid something might be coming…something’s not right. I cannot describe it.’

Brother checking on brother. No love lost but the fronts dissolve a little in the goodbye.

‘Take care of yourself.’ ‘Okay, little brother.’

There is this feeling, this stark feeling of separation, of alienation from family and community.

‘You did this to yourself.’

Closer and closer it creeps in.

‘I was in one of your dreams?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Can you deal with that?’

‘Yeah.’

So you make an exception. But then it’s dinner rimmed by the faces you want to avoid.

‘What are you doing here?’

Fisticuffs. A loss of control. An upending of the table, of your control.

‘You think I’m crazy? There is a storm coming. And not a one of you is prepared for it!’

Faces blur as huddled family exits.

A racing line of birds. Before they begin to fall…

Middle of the night. The siren. The shelter.

‘What if it’s not over?’

‘I don’t hear anything.’

‘I’m sorry. I can’t.’

‘This is something you have to do.’

[rising strings]

_______________________________________________________________________

[Coda: this is my favorite Nichols film. The ambiguity is so perfectly sustained all the way to the very end—those final few scenes arriving like gut punches. The questions—are they answered or do they only birth more questions. The wide open spaces throughout—both literal geographic in the settings and auditory in between the sparse dialogue. The soundtrack pitch perfect—always complementing, never interfering.]

‘caught between writing and life’: peter holm jensen’s the moment

The first psithuristic wisp of autumn arrived this week. Early August and the heat retreated with a whimper in the presence of the death season’s harbinger. Odd to experience this with all the news of raging fires out west. It has been dry here, though, it has been that. Will we too one day be engulfed in flames? More likely floods.

I have been occupied with and preoccupied by disruptions and transitions in my quotidian existence. This has led to feeling disconnected from the written word, excepting my dealings with it for which I receive monetary compensation. However, I did finish reading a book—The Moment by Peter Holm Jensen. A subdued but riveting read, it was calling to me from a special box I’d packed of most-likely-to-be-read-next books. So I answered its call.

Per its publisher Splice, The Moment is a novel but it reads like a journal of its author. Is this an important consideration? Probably not, at least not to me. Frankly I long ago grew tired of the inevitable questions around the mingling of autobiography and fiction. I like works that resist being genrefied. Even the term autofiction seems absurd to me—as if any fiction exists that does not contain parts of its author. What exactly those parts are and what percentage of a book they represent should not matter when it comes to evaluating and appreciating the finished work.

These days I find it far easier to filter my reflections through others’ written words (or music) rather than document them using my own words. It actually feels like it has been this way for far too long. And this is a significant part of what resonated so deeply with me in Holm Jensen’s book: the struggle of living with the paradox of a simultaneous passion for and distrust of language, and in particular the written word.

As the narrator grapples with this paradox, he is also documenting a blurring of the intentional and unintentional experience of living in ‘the moment’—of finding over time that opening into greater awareness, from which more insight may flow. And because the transition to moment living is continuing to happen as the narrator is writing about it, there is a sense of gradual unfolding, with attendant periods of uncertainty and confusion. But what accumulates through the narrator’s journal is evidence that each moment is indeed unique, provided one is open to noticing it.

I was reminded of how all the books I’ve read by Buddhist teachers seem to repeat the same simple ideas over and over until it eventually becomes clear that what at first appear to be the simplest concepts are actually the most complex when it comes to putting them into practice. While Holm Jensen’s book is not overtly Buddhist in nature, it does touch on ideas and questions common to Buddhist practice. But it also entwines these with questions around the act of writing and its significance, leaving those questions—as they can only ever remain—unanswered.

The Moment is a book I think best read without much foreknowledge of its contents, which is why I’ve not delved into any of its narrative specifics here. However, I did write a brief review on Goodreads that offers just a skeletal overview. I hope you consider seeking out the book.

The moment lurks inside everyday time; always new, always the same. It waits to give you back your life, like an event long prepared without your knowledge, like an act of fate. It needs you: your ragged past, your timid present, your whirl of thoughts, your hoard of words. It waits for you to step into the light of day, where it can find you and let you come into your own.

—Peter Holm Jensen

A Set of Lines turns one

Today is the one-year anniversary of the publication of my novel A Set of Lines. To mark the occasion I thought I would offer a little history on its genesis. In a halfhearted attempt to ‘market’ the book when the ebook edition became available, I characterized it as ‘quotidian dystopiary meets nouveau roman,’ realizing even as I did so that this descriptor would likely either repel potential readers or simply generate blank stares. Chances are, even if you know and appreciate the French literary movement known as nouveau roman (see also: antinovel) that arose in the 1950s, you are unlikely to approve of or could even conceive of its integration with dystopian genre tropes. But to me it seemed like the most accurate way to describe the book, regardless of the likelihood of such a description alienating rather than engendering potential new readers.

I didn’t set out to write a novel blending these two types of fiction, nor did the revelation that this was what I had done immediately occur to me after finally finishing it. I was just reaching for a way to explain the book, which is typically something writers hate doing, but must at least attempt if they wish to attract readers. And, to be more precise, the nouveau roman doesn’t necessarily indicate a certain type of fiction. As a so-called movement it’s somewhat controversial, in that many or most of the writers grouped within it (notably by reviewers and critics, in general) did not see themselves as particularly unified in style or theme. That said, similarities do exist between some of their approaches.  

Eight years ago when I started writing what would become A Set of Lines, I had been gorging on nouveau roman writers—specifically a lot of Marguerite Duras and Alain Robbe-Grillet—and they had fully captivated me with their unique styles and focus on tone and mood over plot. As to the source of the novel’s dystopian tropes, I had always been drawn to this subgenre of science fiction, ever since I was a young reader. In my early 20s I’d even played in a concept band based on Orwell’s 1984. So I guess dystopia was in my blood from an early age, though I hadn’t been actively reading it as I began to write A Set of Lines.

I had, however, begun to see elements of both dystopian fiction and my favorite nouveau roman writers’ novels collide in my own daily life: stark repetition, circuitous conversations, blurring of dreams and waking life, hyper-exposed moments of quotidian life, endless meetings, rewriting and/or writing off the past by various overseers. Steeped in this milieu, from the kernel of a long-ago dream-memory (or was it a memory-dream) I began to write…

A Set of Lines review

The writer Rebecca Gransden posted an incisive review of A Set of Lines on Goodreads. Excerpt below:

There is a shorthand inherent in tackling dystopian themes, and Stewart moulds a knowing backdrop, using that shorthand to create a scaffolding which amplifies the atmosphere of benumbed melancholy. Throughout, there is an overwhelming sense of longing underneath the surface, a longing obfuscated and perhaps suppressed for so long, that its very function is being forgotten. The unconscious mind and its rebellion against passivity in the face of the denial of human wants and dignities is very present in this novel.

spectral rabbits

In an ongoing series depicting the After People world, GPA archivists report on an infestation of spectral rabbits, as seen through the eyes of one G. Hogg—a disgruntled groundhog just woken from her months-long nap.

a word was unfolding

I made this erasure earlier this year as part of a collaborative inquiry with Archivist NG into the origins of the Ghost Paper Archives. Full text in lined form appears below the images.

A Word Is Unfolding erasure

A Word Is Unfolding

An erasure made from a sibylline text created by splicing together excerpts from two public domain texts. Sources: The Night-Side of Nature, or Ghosts and Ghost-Seers by Catherine Crowe. B. B. Mussey & Co., 1850 (courtesy of Project Gutenberg);  The Dissociation of a Personality, a Biographical Study in Abnormal Psychology by Morton Prince. Longmans, Green, and Co., 1906 (courtesy of Internet Archive).

a word was unfolding the present
as the present is hypnosis
one being involved in the other
when the victim of action she was a spirit
what loss is to happen
what has happened
what peculiar circumstances
since last fall

this condition we do not know
but that certain thing
telling frightful lies
the worst condition
all experience the moment to feel mortified
however they tell these lies to only one person
and her friend falls into doubt

at a much later date I had opportunities,
his Creator a hundred times might say
we admit this and witness that, for more reasons
in automatism they sleep,
early beginnings exercise the here
in prophetic dreaming

seeing in dreams
may be spontaneous
time and phenomena form no obstruction
to the dreamer things near and far are later
in the nothing mirror self
and nothing to connect what took place
she knew she was the future

such phenomena interest him
man has lost his faculty of seeing
but in sleep the body in a state of passivity
even normal minds split in two
by shutting the senses
we perceive the spirit
when freed from impediments
they enjoy original design

the mirror of two minds at one still moment
receives in dreams rays from above
foretaste of the condition

at this date history has been opinion
the mental ancient life
the original state dubbed from his Creator
that unexpected process
the waking pain self
transformed into the slang of “It”

for his sensuous organs she had the objects
his soul field post-hypnotic
mirror pointed out
everything was reflected

a doubling is induced
a spirit no longer independent
a condition to perceive
degraded and distracted
by the multiplicity

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