As the Republic edges toward disaster, Anakin Skywalker falls for Senator Padmé Amidala. A private eye’s search for a missing cat takes him on a trip through space and time. A woman law student seeks to discover the truth about the murder of two Supreme Court justices. A British boy’s life at a school for witchcraft is menaced when an infamous murderer escapes from prison.
The best thing about conceptual poetry is that it doesn’t need to be read. Have you heard this before? Conceptual poetry’s mouthpiece Kenneth Goldsmith says so. You don’t have to read it. (I didn’t read Adam Braffman’s BESTSELLER. Not all of it. Didn’t have to. Still loved it.) All you need to know is the concept behind the book. Here’s every word I spoke for a week. Here’s a year’s worth of weather reports. And without ever having to read these things, you understand them. So, in a weird way, if you get the concept—which should be put out in front of the book—then you get the book, and you don’t even have to read it. Such things are better to talk about than they are to read, so it is said.
But that isn’t to say that there is no reading taking place, for in talking about conceptual poetry, you are, in a way, reading it. (This is one of the many notable perverse accomplishments of the genre.) And in reviewing conceptual poetry, you are effectively taking said reading (your think-talking) public.
Of course this isn’t a word for word reading—though, for what it’s worth, I do wonder whether close-reading conceptual poetry isn’t a completely useless tactic—but more in line with how you read the proverbial room, how you read a painting (the expression on her face). Both goal and process are fundamentally Cubist: you want to bring the hidden component out from behind and unfold it so it rests boldly in front, right there on the same plane as what was already visible (the rear cheek and eye in line with the face out in front, the shaded poetic material in line with its outward facing source text).
So approaching a conceptual poetry becomes not unlike solving a riddle, in which an interlocutor is challenged to pin down the name and nature of a hidden object by probing its comparisons to some better illuminated things (The soldier who attacks me with his sword will cry, says the onion; and of the iceberg: it is water become bone). The significant difference, it seems, is that with conceptual poetry the familiar points of comparison (the soldier and sword, the water and bone) are so familiar, so ‘better illuminated’, in fact, that it encroaches upon—and is!—a moment of plagiarism, an exact duplicate. So when Kenneth Goldsmith transcribes and publishes a complete radio broadcast of the longest nine inning Major League Baseball game on record and calls the book SPORTS, we read it (sort of) and find ourselves thinking about and probing into some other indeterminate something (idea? feeling? understanding?) about art, of all things, despite the fact that we’re essentially just listening to the radio (play-by-play, commentator filler, cheesy local ads, and all). Art theory, for God’s sake, from the shitty off-the-cuff jokes a baseball analyst makes about the way an outfielder steals second! What movement!
–I want to localize this before the wheels come off.
A woman’s long journey to self-discovery. The five-year relationship of two women, a teen-age patient and her analyst. An ex-President and his Congresswoman wife investigate four crimes in the capital. From India to England to Africa: the travels and travails of a writer as he struggles to achieve a coherent self. The complex relationships of a family in New York City and South Carolina’s low country. Blackford Oakes plays his part in the race with the Russians to get a satellite into orbit.
I was eager to probe Adam Braffman’s BESTSELLER (sometimes titled BEST SELLER ⌘ V) in a public review because I think it links up in an important and efficient way to a complicated relationship we have with beginnings. While first dates are exciting, first date conversations (as my Tindering coworkers might tell you) become dull, routine fixtures of establishing who, what, where, when, why… before getting into the good stuff (not sex, mind you, but longer-term companionship). It’s undeniable: there’s an insufferable component to beginning again, no matter the potential upside. After all, doesn’t it take more energy to accelerate a resting object than an already-moving one?
At play is the same factor that determines our growing preference for television to movies (and sequels to original productions). The time spent investing in new characters’ names, personalities, relationships to one another, work-places, home-places, school-places, drinking-places, the direction of the show, the genre of the show, even, (what balance of comedy and drama, of romance and danger): in television, this takes, say, half an hour (the pilot), and the next 20-50+ hours are then fairly beginning-free (you start episode six of season four and you hit the ground running), whereas with movies you are obligated to restart completely every 90 minutes (unless you’re a sequel!), because no sooner have you gotten the equivalent of two or three episodes into “the series,” so to speak, than you’re wiping the slate clean, introducing a new movie with new actors, characters, settings, plots. It’s exhausting, really, and it doesn’t play to our growing greater interest in the culture-stuff with higher substance-to-time ratios (not sex, but companionship).
So when Adam Braffman culls together between two- and three-thousand single-sentence summaries of two- or three-thousand of our generation’s top-selling books featured in the New York Times Best Sellers archives and then strings them together end-on-end across 88 text-stuffed pages, we experience the sentences taking part not in the satisfying brevity of a tweet, text, or Snapchat, but in the intolerable sensation of endlessly flipping channels, scanning Netflix suggestions, rifling through StumbleUpon hits, and nexting in Pandora, which is to say: there is no resolution, only regeneration.
So no, you don’t have to read BESTSELLER to understand how it works as a seemingly-infinite cycle of flashcards dotted with cursory trivia on the subject of Popular American Fiction and Memoir (more or less), but maybe you should anyway. I was determined to read it in such a way, word for word. It’s an obsession I believe became ingrained in me as I struggled to read another tremendously rewarding piece of conceptual poetry—Angela Genusa’s TENDER BUTTONS (also from Gauss-PDF)—which itself likely stemmed from my desperately clung-to belief that all poetry, narrative, lyric, or conceptual, is fundamentally a time-art, one that must be slogged through to know well. I would recommend reading this way—one single-sentence plot summary at a time—despite the fact that you will likely give up at some point (as I admittedly did at least twice) because it turns you on to an experience of the text that your conceptual knowledge of it simply doesn’t offer.
Inspector Richard Jury must identify two skeletons found at the site of a bomb attack on London in 1940. The romance of an American Indian princess and an Englishman, told in words and pictures. The second volume of “The War of Souls,” a fantasy saga. The President is kidnapped; fella says he wants million.
What I mean to say is this: in reading it all, every word, one detects periodic glimpses of charm in the otherwise-muddling challenge of interacting with BESTSELLER. If the 88 pages are broken down into paragraph-long chunks, reading said chunks feels not unlike keeping up with an episode of Game of Thrones or some other episodic ensemble-cast television saga, where so many disparate balls are kept up in the air, each getting its turn in the passing juggle, that even the most incongruous of storylines begin to inform a larger composite narrative. We begin to imagine BESTSELLER describing (or behaving as) a hyper-maximalist novel in the vein of Infinite Jest or White Teeth, but larger and more inclusive, that couldn’t possibly exist as a real book, but very well may exist in the cloud, so to speak, with these various summaries functioning as plotlines directing us toward and hinting at it, the bestsellers being but individual books of the BESTSELLER Bible’s Old and New Testaments.
And though these charmed moments are fleeting, no sooner appearing in their eight-to-ten sentence groupings than yielding back to the frustrating “begin afresh, afresh, afresh” mantra that echoes throughout the book—didn’t I say our relationship to beginnings was complicated?—they do pepper a difficult manuscript with enough regularity as to reward a careful reading of an otherwise (supposedly) unreadable text. It’s why I can say both that I didn’t read all of BESTSELLER and that I didn’t not read any of it, that I was endlessly beat-up by it and in love with the bruising.
BESTSELLER is available for free from Gauss-PDF
Michael Gossett is from Memphis, Tennessee. He tweets a commonplace book of poetry, riddles, comedy, and basketball at: @michaeljgossett