REVIEW: Calamities by Renee Gladman

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by Sam Lohmann

Renee Gladman’s new book Calamities (Wave, 2016) wrecks genre. Let’s say it’s written in the essay line, each problem leading to further problems. Line and essay problems write and draw, don’t solve, each other.

Calamities is a book of episodic displacements and frames within frames. Each essay is a fragment, a new beginning, discontinuous from its neighbors but in conversation with them. Each one (until the final section, “The Eleven Calamities”—there are actually 14) begins with the phrase I began the day, which works not only to establish sequence but to place the narrator within three simultaneous frames: doing something (in the past, on a day), narrating the doing (in the book’s present), and writing, revising, worrying over the narration (in an ambiguous past-tense present, maybe the same day). The narrator often seems to be doing, thinking, writing by hand and typing on a computer all at once, or alternately. There are open quotations whose close is narrated verbally rather than typeset, essays within dreams within essays, and many remembered and imagined books and drafts and drawings. A peculiar mix of specificity and dreamy vagueness displaces each episode to a realm of fable rather than autobiography— narrator’s city and university go unnamed, while other names pass too briefly to ever pin down the narrator or her surroundings. This deflection comes to form, in Gladman’s words, “the scarring that made people feel safe in public,” in a story “rupturing, never completing itself, rather, endlessly repeating, starting again and again, in the sense that sometimes beginnings are slow and last forever and everything you need is within them.”

Calamities is a book about writing and how to go on. The central, centripetal strategy is analogy, between genres, media, modes of action. To begin (or, the narrator finds eventually, to stop), writing has to be something else—walking, thinking, folding paper scraps, or, inescapably, drawing. This speculative identity draws a meandering line through Gladman’s works: “I did every kind of walk down this corridor to arrive at the room of writing, and I walked with every kind of feeling, so that it wouldn’t always be the same text I was writing.”

The anthropologist Tim Ingold, in Lines: A Brief History, situates writing as a form of drawing, an activitation of line. His taxonomy of thread and trace, guideline and plotline, may be useful, but no explicit definitions are needed for Gladman’s practice and theory to go on. Analogy between media, pursued with visionary literalism or sly duplicity, has proven liberating for many artists: I’m thinking of Barbara Guest’s relation to painting, Nathaniel Mackey’s to music (specifically in his ongoing great jazz novel), or Cy Twombly’s to writing. If that’s one tradition Gladman’s work belongs to, she can also be read in traditions of black speculative fiction (with Samuel R. Delany and Octavia Butler), black transgressive conceptual art (Adrian Piper, Ralph Lemon), and American women’s writing at the intersection of daily life and linguistic experiment (from Gertrude Stein to Etel Adnan, say).

As Gladman has explained: “Recently, I have been playing around with the idea that there is a spectrum along which sentences become drawings.” (And in Calamities she says they are “identical gestures made with the hand.”) Ingold would take exception to the sentence, which he sees as an imposition from print culture, but that would miss Gladman’s point. Print is where we’ve been, and the sentence has been a primary object of experiment—and obsession—for the hundred years since Stein at least.

Gladman obsesses and opens new airways at the levels of sentence, story, essay, sequence, model, and of discrete words that draw themselves through the thickness and unexpectedness of their phonemes: Ravickians or looning up on claw or geoscography. Late in Calamities, the narrator holds the word sentence in her mouth and becomes aware of “the essence of sentence” like a paper chain or papier-mâché sculpture that absorbs the world into its sculptural content: “It sucked everything in and enforced an order that made me particularly aware of time.”

Counterbalancing the strategy of analogy is the centrifugal and contrapuntal tactic of essay as a unit of thought and of life. By making each essay coterminous with a day, Gladman estranges and doubles the day and makes it the site of problems to be essayed. The problems that engage her are fundamental, the solutions provisional and idiosyncratic. A book on architecture titled The Atlas of Novel Tectonics becomes a divinatory source for the novelist; one drawing demands to be redrawn hundreds of times in lieu of writing; a particular student (but which one?) is taken for the person in the world—“the person who is the most perplexed of all persons.” These insolvent solutions might be unsatisfying if the narrator, in her bewilderment and ours, weren’t such wonderful company.

Commuting by train, the narrator finds the Atlantic Northeast transformed into the Pacific Northwest, which seems to match the New England personality—“I mean, they really did already act as if all there was was rain.” Later the narrator, reading Herta Müller, considers the possibility that she has become a different person by laying eyes on the page: an “Eastern-European African American” in an atopian “undermining of all that is the case,” wishing she could get people “to understand how black people are another kind of Eastern European” and wondering how it would be “for the Eastern Europeans to call themselves black, or even black Asian.” Gladman’s experience as a black lesbian writer and academic is implicit throughout the book, while at the same time identity and its attendant characters—and all qualities of self we’d suppose permanent—come unstitched through the wayfaring of her narration. Calamities is a book about daily life, which is shown to be a series of transformations whose end is unknown. Ingold might describe it as a line traveled along rather than to or from: but Gladman’s line is discontinuous like letters in printed sentences. Each transformation is a calamity, unresolved but pointing to further possibilities.

Buy it from Wave Books: $18.00

Sam Lohmann is a poet and librarian living in Portland, Oregon. His recent books include Unless As Stone Is (eth press, 2014) and Day Use Area (Couch Press, 2014). Adventitious writings can be found at thefirmandaerie.tumblr.com.

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