Old Media Monday: The Remix
Today's actual OMM will arrive later, at its regularly scheduled, just-past-Monday hour, but I was recalled to last week's entry by a post I ran across on Jacket Copy, the LA Times's book blog, Ed Park's "remix" of his piece from last week on Laurie Sheck's A Monster's Notes, which like the original version is a commonplace-book style collection of quotes and reflections, and which now includes this section:
On Amazon’s Omnivoracious blog, Tom writes: “Ed Park's notes on 'A Monster's Notes' by Laurie Sheck: ‘I started this review before finishing the book, in the form of notes. I didn't know I was writing the review yet. I have another file just as long. Fungibility of the notebook mode. Juxtaposition is easy, at times even arbitrary; effects perhaps no less revelatory or pungent.’ [His notes weren't really revelatory for me -- what do you think?]”
I think you’re wrong.
And we’re not done yet.
As regular OMMers know, I don't often comment on the reviews I quote (usually only when I've read the book and agree or disagree strongly with the review). So why did this one arouse my ire, especially because I consider myself pro-juxtaposition, pro-mess, pro-notes? (Well, ire's a little strong--I really did mean that question--"what do you think?"--to be open-ended. The piece hadn't worked for me but I was curious if it did for others.) I tend to put OMM together late at night, zooming through reviews when I should be going to bed, and I may have been a little punchy and impatient when I got derailed by a review in a non-linear, David Markson style (and been annoyed by the somewhat immodest claims it made for its form). So given Ed's boldface rebuttal, I thought I'd look at the piece again, along with the remix, and see what I thought in the light of day. (I also printed both pieces out to read, since oddly I think these sorts of fragmentary pieces, which as Ed notes are constructed like the Internet, actually seem less coherent when read in the middle of the chaos of a newspaper web page.)
On my first, midnight read of the original, I had gotten stuck on some of the more meta observations ("The text as body") that seemed to be familiar and therefore banal. I wanted something that spent less time telling me what it was doing and more time doing it. But on a second read I found some fragments I liked quite a bit. I liked, "We unthinkingly refer to the monster as 'Frankenstein,' understandable when the frame is so crooked, and creature and creator present themselves with equal eloquence"--that's nice! And I liked the monstrous, open-ended title, "Still alive!" And I especially liked the last section, with its echoes of the monster's creation in which a full-blown story threatens to erupt from the fragments:
But reading the remix helped me think why something like this might or might not work. The second version is longer, and as it stretches out, the ratio of weird, evocative nuggets (the good parts!) to abstract theoretical statements gets higher and higher, and the piece gets meatier. And as it gets longer, the web of happenstance connections gets thicker and more fascinating. I love the bits of his own marginal notes to other books he brings in--even a theoretical note like "Why does one begin to read an unfinished novel?" gains weight when we're told he wrote it years ago on the back of volume one of the endless Chinese epic--which he never finished--The Story of the Stone.
There's a note late in the remix that works as a shorthand for the sorts of judgments that would make up the heart of a traditional book review, and it's my favorite part of the remix, partially because it doesn't just juxtapose but follows a reasoned line of argument (I do like a little stitching in my monsters, and I think "but" is a more productive conjunction than "and"):
"Heft becomes crucial to the experience"--that's the nut of it. I think it's one reason I like Ed's remix better than his original, and it gets at something I've had on my mind a lot lately, as someone who has spent much of the past couple years reading, thinking about, and loving the big Bolanos. I'm fascinated by giant, messy books, and I think the two (giant, messy) go together. Some people disagree, but to me the short Bolanos I've read don't have close to the power the long ones do, even though whole sections of the larger ones (for instance, books 1, 2, or 3 of 2666) don't really seem necessary. To put it in Ed's terms, a few juxtapositions don't hold much power, but at some point you reach a network effect and a sheaf of notes gains the strength of the sublime: the more connections you see, the more they start to seem like a system.
And that's a hopeful thought, since the next big book I'm setting off into is William T. Vollmann's Imperial, a giant, baggy 1,300-page creature that I have an unfounded, but no less awed for it, suspicion is the Anatomy of Melancholy of our times...
In the meantime, please keep adding to your own monster, Ed. You've made me want to read A Monster's Notes now (the job of any good review), and I'm glad to have been stitched in (and perhaps added to) your notes.
And we're not done yet.