Sketching Ecstasy, Elegy, and Selves...Just Like That.
Identity politics are all too often the product of conceptual drivel domains, poly-politricks offering in their activated forms a paradoxical combination of excess and incompleteness, lazy notions of what we are and showing few signs of what we could be. Espousal of assured roles and definitive function can so often lead to stagnation and ontological misunderstanding, self-misunderstanding. One's preconceptions of one's singularity can easily lead to bankrupt, vapid notions of identity distillation and essentialism. On the other extreme, you get the postmodern polarity of flux and fluidity, solidity and fixity be damned. I can be exactly what I want to be, I can be anything I want to be: neither is wholly tenable or even desirable if true self-investigation and current social conditions are contemplated.
So much autofiction (what a vile vehicle of a name!) today typifies the autofriction of masturbatory narcissism, a selfie simpatico that is symptomatic of the gaze-in-my-mirror culture that needs to be smashed. Then forgotten. Amen. Self-focus in fictional and non-fiction memoirs or combo fiction/nonfiction memoirs leads increasingly to rote reminisce, a luxuriousness in one's quotidian quest for--what?-- conventional deployments of narrative, self, blah, blah. The waters are seldom troubled, the linear logic of a life is predictable, and the actual rationale for these gratuitous I-absorption odysseys apparent only to the centrifugally directed authors and their voyeuristic readers, in numbing love with oft-repeated iterations of 21st century existence on the plateau of painful complacence: no abysses, no registers of awe, just the sequencing of this and that and there you go.
In the November 8, 2018 issue of London Review of Books, Frederic Jameson, that ever reliable critic of the logic of late capitalism, reviewed Book 6 of the Karl Ove Knausgaard cavalcade of self-whelp books. He notes:
I will call Knausgaard's kind of writing 'itemisation.' We have,
in postmodernity, given up on the attempt to 'estrange' our
daily life and see it in new, poetic or nightmarish ways; we
have given up the analysis of it in terms of commodity form,
in situation in which everything by now is a commodity; we
have abandoned the quest for new languages to describe the
stream of self-same or new psychologies to diagnose its
distressingly unoriginal reactions and current events. All that
is left is to itemise them, to list the items that come by.
How pathetic and how pathetically popular. But there are monumentally satisfying counterexamples to this fare and two I would heartily, mindfully, and spiritually recommend are Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore's Sketchtasy (Arsenal Pulp Press) and Barbara Henning's Just Like That (Sputen Duyvil), both published last year. Each book testifies to the hard-won engagement, as opposed to blase absorption, with subjectivity and the forces that shape it (Full disclosure, full frontal revelation: I know each writer on a personal level and am great admirers of their respective bodies of work.) Each, on the surface, appears to explore the dailiness of whatever activities and ideas espoused in linear, patient motion. However, internal and external pressures, self-made and self-unmaking, disturb any narrative equilibrium and what emerges are sudden eruptions of narrative nebulae that quake and veer with tremendous potency.
Sketchtasy takes place in mid-1990s Boston, the vibrant young queer scene living it up during the still-dying days of AIDS (and too many are still dying, damn it). It is an antic, absorbing chronicle of community that revels in anarchic, indulgent abandon yet is ever alert to the encroaching darkness of disease/disease, that is, both AIDS and what constitutes mainstream society, what David Wojnarowicz called "the preinvented world." Bernstein Sycamore's first person narrator first pinballs within his/her social scene and then reckons ominously, lonely, with the threatening dual harbinger that is illness and society. This moving anti-morality fable neither goes for unrelenting celebration or doom, filled as it is with revels and resignation, a goad to rethinking friendship, mortality, one's safety in a world of despoliation. "Rashes. Rashes for us all."
Henning's Just Like That might initially be taken for a straightforward document of semi-fictionalized heterosexual romantic love from a female perspective. Such a characterization would so deeply diminish the affecting and effective deployment of a furiously cerebral rumination on love, passion, and the evanescent, mysterious quality of love and its attachment, past and present. Set in a quietly gentrifying New York City of the past decade, Henning's anti-fairy tale questions the motives and agency of partners embarking on a relationship, at times loving and so too fraught. The title of this book by a writer also well known poet is a clever misnomer: nothing happens "Just Like That" because love and living are difficult. Identity is difficult. These two books are vexed and complex, contemplating what identity is and can be. They are courageous and among the most forceful books I've read this decade.