Andy Fitch’s Island (The Song Cave, 2011) resembles the transcription of a narrated walk. Our speaker is an unnamed male graduate student in CUNY’s English Department, who on April 16 traverses Manhattan from top to bottom. What we have is a stream-of-consciousness assemblage of observations and commentary one day on the island. In this regard, Fitch’s walker recalls and reformulates the Parisian flâneur, the wandering participant-observer who Baudelaire and later Benjamin identified as emblematic of 19th century Paris. To be a flâneur was to experiment idly, to be both an anthropologist and a poet. However, Fitch’s walker/talker is a new thing. His trajectory maps not just an ethnography of a place or a culture, but an exploration of speech and authorship.
The beauty of this type of text is that it doesn’t settle in any genre. It resembles both voice-notes (and thus research), and diary (and thus memoir); at the same time, the quality of the language and the construction of intrigue within the monologue recall both poetry and short story. The deal is that, being (or rather, acting like) an oral text, Island insists that words are originally oral, and that written text is translation of speech. In that regard it weaves together the artifice of the written word, and the authenticity of the spoken, in a pleasingly troublesome way.
In that previous sentence I sort of set up “artifice” and “authenticity” as contrary to one another and maybe I shouldn’t, but hear me out.
Among the multiple ways Island articulates this opposition is that it is set in New York, which is one of those cities that has the weird quality of being both real and mythological. There are only two times in my life I have managed to grok that New York is not just a setting for movies and TV shows and the news, but actually exists: first, the one time I went there, and second, when I read this book. The specificity of our narrator’s monologue is one of its most pleasing qualities: if we tried, we could probably trace his exact trajectory by the concreteness of his account:
Before 220th W ash & Lube I note [Cough] warm bright sun…A couple collectively carries their Target bag…The boy’s tattooed calves confirm the spring
Such that we are reminded that New York is full of particular, authentic details, and not just its inescapable mythological qualities. (This phenomenon is something I think a lot about these days because I recently moved to another previously mentioned mythological city, Paris.)
And it’s on this pleasing tension that the piece founds it complexity. Our narrator at one point sees someone he knows named Stephen Yosifon and tries to get his attention. The book itself is dedicated to a Stephen Yosifon, Brooklyn Law 2012. I note this in order to point out how the text appears at times be a straight-from-life recording, non-fiction; and not only non-fiction – as we’re all pleased to trouble ourselves over the distinction between fiction and non-fiction – but embodied. Corporeal and current. Actually happening, right now:
…And then there’s this (I think there could be a lot of them…but there’s this) high-rise with glassed…upper-deck condos…so now rich people can regard the park…its Loch and Lasker Pool…the Conservatory Gardens’ gates not…Holy shit I’ll have to scream…Hey Stephen! Stephen Y osifon! Stephen! Stephen…look right! Stephen Stephen! Stephen Y os-i-fon! Look to your right…Stephen Stephen Stephen! Stephen Yosifon! I really can’t believe this is hap…I’ll call him…I’ll call Stephen…Since such amazing…I’ve got to get this phone out…Stephen! Stephen Yosifon! Sorry for loud…Hey big Stephen! Stephen Stephen Yosifon! You know what…okay …Stephen’s walking to work…I should let him
So reading this work, we’re constantly asking ourselves: is this for real? Who is this guy? What is his intention in making this recording? The narrator frequently refers to the fact that this is a conscious exercise: he tests his microphone, stops and checks his reflection in shop windows to readjust it:
Discarded cardboard hovers here…a Snapple case…a Luxia electronics box…I’ll check my mic by bending down to cars’ side mirrors…quickly
and comments on his own commentary:
I’ll wait behind a woman…let’s say 65…stout…matronly…black cloth tied to the back of her head…almost a yarmulke…yet means she’s a nun…She grins…kind of laughs relating to a girl…carries the Times business section…Then I step on some sticker…and (I’m not trying to create dynamic juxtapositions) it presents an oiled couple fucking above a phone number…
And in that regard it appears to be exercise, research, experimentation, perhaps preparation, or perhaps therapy; that is, it’s an artwork that reveals the making of artwork, or, put differently, that it includes in its presentation the process of its own creation. Or it pretends to, anyway.
Because it does feel artificial – beautifully so:
Deli to their right…Cotton puffs…the summer’s first…flitting…flying up and down…so that your face can’t avoid being hit…One swift speck swoops deep in my throat…One mechanized inflatable doll I’d prefer not to describe…
A lemon slice drained of juice capsules retains skin dividing the wedges…I appreciate this geometry of the lemon…I’ve ignored…or not discussed…these men who mumble…face outwards…muttering fast about money
Who could explain its girls in tutus…pink tutus and sparkling blouses…smiling from a classic drill-team pose transformed by improv …urban…sweet ballerinas…Sun streams through our open pores
I mean when you’re just idly talking to yourself, do you talk like that – “A lemon slice drained of juice capsules”? I wish I did.
(Is talking to a microphone ever really talking to yourself, if you know that someone one day may listen to the recording?)
These utterances, despite being dispersed among ellipses and appearing off-the-cuff, are finely wrought. So as we read them, full of verbs and interesting phrasal constructions and dynamic juxtapositions (because they’re all over the place, even if he’s “not trying” to create them) we gotta ask ourselves: at what point in its process of creation did this assemblage of words become poetry? Right? We want to know: was there ever a real recording made, a real walk walked, or was the whole thing thought up by the author as he sat at his desk? Or is it a completely perfect replica of an actual act of speech by a brilliantly eloquent orator? Or was the recording really made and then embellished, worked over, by the transcriber? Just where exactly is the threshold of fiction here?
We can have fun imagining answers to these questions given details from the text. For one thing, it does include traces of the transcriber’s hand, for example:
First I’ll check this mic in a cab at this gas station…Because of wind [Cough] mic keeps blowing…I mean I’m standing on a busy subway grate
[Garbled] would expect voices rapping in staircase bathroom stalls…Great floors but the mic’s gone limp…I’ll remove this collared shirt…
A fictional or actual person had to have demarked the noise on the fictional or actual recording as [Cough] and [Garbled]. But then, not all exterior noise gets included in the italicized notes. At times, we only know of them because our narrator tell us they happened:
(I hope that song got recorded…which came from a teen locking a bike…in cut-off shorts and black sleeveless T -shirt…while an unmarked police car passed silent with sirens on)…Still I hope this kid’s music came through…because I consider “Don’t Stop Til Y ou Get Enough” the essential New York song…not for any ostensible content… those big wild Arabian chords
And so this is what I mean by the weft of artifice and authenticity: it’s more complicated that it would be in other works of fiction and non-fiction, where you’re only dealing with two consciousnesses, namely that of the author and that of the narrator. Here there is a third, a transcriber, and we do not know which side of the threshold this person occupies; we do not know exactly how they have influenced the words we read versus words that were spoken, or were imagined to be spoken. And so our transcriber, wherever and whoever he may be, is himself a narrator, another filter laid between we, the readers, and whatever truth it is that this text wants us to perceive.
To illustrate: do we ever consider, in spoken language, what makes a remark parenthetical? How does the decision to place something in parentheses change how a reader understands a transcription of speech? Or, I mean – punctuation in general – the act of punctuating a transcription is an act of interpretation, something made evident in lines like:
Couples lie together…blankets on grass…and I’ll wonder (no complaints here…just considering) if I’ve done that enough…
As I mentioned earlier, I recently moved to Paris, for the purpose of studying French literature and literary translation. What I’ve learned so far in my translation courses is that translation is mostly impossible. At least on a large scale, you can’t say the same thing in two different languages. How could you? You aren’t speaking the same words. A translator takes what they hear or read or understand, and interprets it. They filter the truth; their task is both to re-write the text and to remain loyal to it, a task which sometimes approaches paradox. Reading Fitch’s Island, I wonder whether translation and transcription might be the same task.
In French, there are two past perfect tenses. They convey the same verbal aspect but one (passé composé) is used in spoken French and in texts that approximate spoken French; it conveys a feeling of recent, mundane or quotidian truth. The other (passé simple) is reserved for formal history and fiction and never in spoken conversation; it conveys a feeling of a truth that is remote and mythological. French therefore requires a distinction between types of truth that English avoids; it makes explicit something English only suspects, which is that transcribing an oral utterance in letters may fundamentally change what it conveys. Island raises the problem of this distinction for us, with its assembly of a hybrid walker-writer-talker-type, a creature who inhabits the interstices between speech and text and transmits small stories from that space.
Download Island for free at The Song Cave
Sally McCallum is from Tucson. She writes about poetry and science fiction at nonsunblog.