I’m not particularly drawn to biographies, and certainly not music biographies, but I make exceptions for Elvis. I was also swayed because I have heard Peter Guralnick’s books praised many times. Most satisfying about Last Train to Memphis, volume one of Guralnick’s two volume biography of Elvis Presley, was Guralnick’s ability to humanize his subject. The persona of Elvis, years after his death, is such a caricature, even a joke, that it can be hard to remember that there was a real, living, breathing person named Elvis Presley. The book contained what were, for me, some fantastic revelations. For one, Elvis was nearly done in when he was a youngster, not by the difficulties of his quest for fame, but by the swiftness with which it arrived. In a year’s time, he went from being a nobody to being one of the most recognizable faces in the country, a man whose presence literally caused riots whenever he appeared in public. For Elvis, it was a major struggle simply to adjust to this new life. Television documentaries and magazine articles often mention in passing that Elvis’ music and persona caused quite a stir, moral outrage even, when he appeared on the scene in the 1950s. Such stories sound quaint and exaggerated in this day and age, but with the context provided by Guralnick, I was able to see how groundbreaking Elvis really was, both musically and socially. Finally, I was enthralled by Guralnick’s portraits of Elvis’ supporting cast, quirky characters like Elvis’ mother Gladys, his manager Colonel Tom Parker, and the guy who gave him his first big break, Sam Phillips. The book rekindled my love, as it surely will rekindle yours, for the early days of rock and roll, and it left me with a serious hankering to read volume two of the biography, Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley sometime real soon.
This is the first book review I’ve written in nearly three years, since I hung up my reviewing socks following a stint at Publishers Weekly’s online division, where I was paid handsomely in American currency to review books about sports and music. Those books were assigned to me based on a rough affinity for the subject matter. I liked baseball and Phil Spector music and funny writing, so I was assigned books about baseball, Phil Spector and the music industry, naturally.
Despite my purported interest in the subject matter, however, I often disliked the books assigned to me. Perhaps this was a residual effect of years of assigned reading at school. These books, looming over my reading list like a colonoscopy, found me angry and tired. Still, I gave them a fair shake. A few rose above to really impress me. Others offered diversion or momentary entertainment before lapsing into unrelenting mediocrity. Several were nearly too dreadful to finish.
When I reviewed books, I tried to find their best qualities first. To do so, I often imagined a book’s ideal reader. Every book, after all, has its intended audience, and maybe an underemployed, poorly paid book reviewer wasn’t it. Perhaps somebody else, someone with a different background and no taste, might find merit in a memoir about the early days of off-shore gambling. Stranger things have come to pass. Still, it seems rare that a book finds it ideal reader, and rarer still that said reader is also in a position to write a long and self-referential review of it.
Occasionally, though, God reaches down and places the right book in the right reader’s hands. Such a moment occurred a few weeks ago when I received a new book in the mail. In this particular scenario, however, God was a New York publicist named Kate.
This prelude exists largely to explain why you might not like Richard Rushfield’s memoir Don’t Follow Me, I’m Lost as much as I did. You might not be able to access its bleak, wintry setting. Perhaps the events of the narrative, the college experiences of the wayward young Rushfield, won’t appeal to you. If so, I understand. Maybe you went to a state school.
On the face of it, Richard Rushfield and I are not that similar. I went to a competitive academic school in the late 1990s while Rushfield toiled (figuratively) at weirder-than-thou Hampshire College in the 1980s. I made friends relatively easily and dragged myself to class with frequency. Rushfield joined an infamous band of outsiders, The Supreme Dicks, eventually achieving full pariah status in only a few years. And yet, of all the people in the world who might read this book, none would enjoy it as much as I. For one thing, I love campus literature. My favorite novel is Lucky Jim, and my favorite Updike story is “The Christian Roommate.” I also enjoy books whose characters simply can’t get out of their own way. Toby Young (who blurbed this book, I notice) wrote an excellent memoir in much this fashion, How to Lose Friends and Alienate People. There’s just something about people lighting themselves on fire, I suppose.
Rushfield begins to self-immolate almost immediately upon setting foot on the Hampshire College campus. Located in Amherst, Massechusetts, Hampsire is part of the five college system, along with Amherst, UMass, Smith and Mount Holyoke. It’s committed to alternative education, meaning it gives no grades and offers its students the opportunity to craft their own education around the subject matter that interests them. It’s this freedom that attracts him. Well, that and the promise of a single room.
Hindered in part by his aversion to marijuana, Rushfield has some difficulty navigating the social world of Hampshire, with its abundance of Hippies and “Preppy Deadheads”: students who came from elite prep schools but embraced aspects of hippie culture, such as hackysack, the Grateful Dead and dreadlocks (another term for this demographic is the Frisbee Elite). Rushfield drifts along on the periphery of the school, skipping nearly every class and living a mostly solitary life.
When he’s caught scrawling some graffiti on someone’s Bob Marley poster, he’s exiled from the dorms and forced to find a new place to live. He turns to The Supreme Dicks, the most reviled people on campus.
It’s here that the book hits its stride, finding its heroes and establishing a rich mythology that few memoirs ever achieve. One part commune, one part experimental post-punk band, The Supreme Dicks live in one of the college’s modular housing units deep in the woods. From their remote location, they operate as their own world, complete with its own philosophy, a bastardized version of the teachings of Wilhelm Reich.
Richard, it turns out, had been warned about the Dicks from the very beginning:
Back in my first week at Hampshire, Lonnie had taken me aside, in his characteristic manner that was the more terrifying for its seeming concern that he was anxious for my safety, and warned me that there was a group of evil, despicable people at the school. Horrible, dreadful, terrible, he said, spitting adjectives until he was gasping for breath. He didn’t want to scare me but he had reason to believe that these people, who called themselves “the Supreme Dicks,” might try — he kneaded my shoulder with a caring hand — might try to talk to me. You see, he continued, he had noticed that I bore a resemblance to one of them — one of their leaders who had left the school after, Lonnie went on, eyebrow arched, his brother had died…My heart raced. Weird people, with some tragic secret, will want to talk to me?
Talk to him they do, and eventually Rushfield takes refuge in their ranks. It’s there, in the woods, that he discovers that life with the Dicks is a surreal and often directionless experience. For instance, roughly thirty pages is given to describing a night when the group, hungry and cold, plots a trip to the new Denny’s two towns over. Despite a mounting panic about whether they’d have anything to eat that night, their inability to organize an expedition, even in the face of hunger pains, takes on an hallucinogenic quality, as they wander around the campus like Bedouin scavengers, looking for the path of least resistance.
To pigeonhole the Dicks as anti-hippie would be to simplify a mysterious movement, a group composed of people from across the racial, sexual and generational spectrum (several of the Dicks are approaching their second decade as Hampshire College students when the book begins). One couldn’t rightly call them nihilists, as they have a core of beliefs, what with their Reichian theories and their belief in celibacy and vegetarianism. And yet, they seem to oppose more or less everything and everyone else. And therein, I think, lies the greatness of this book.
At its heart, Don’t Follow Me, I’m Lost is a memoir of opposition, of resistance. Rushfield and the Dicks position themselves as the “other” at a school that is all about embracing that which is different or marginalized, so long as that marginalization feels earned by genuine oppression. The Dicks, a mix of rich and poor, white and non, straight and gay, defy easy categorization, and unsurprisingly, meet with scorn.
That the Dicks emerge as the unlikely heroes of the book is testament to Rushfield’s storytelling abilities. He has talent for exposing the hypocrisies and idiocies of the typical Hampshire armchair revolutionary. The more the college slides further and further into left-wing, politically correct fascism, the more Rushfield and his friends seem like the voices of reason.
Don’t Follow Me, I’m Lost contains many elements of the typical college narrative: the confusion of orientation, the perils of dorm life, the relationships formed and dissolved in a matter of days or hours. There’s even a ridiculously ill-conceived trip to Daytona Beach for spring break. But nothing at Hampshire happens as one would expect. Every situation is coated with a thick haze of drugs and radical politics, rendering it both familiar and foreign at the same time. The effect is a small, messy, often infuriating world, a world I nevertheless enjoyed inhabiting for a few hundred pages. By the end of the book, I found myself agreeing with the graffiti Rushfield finds in the library soon after arriving at Hampshire: “Supreme Dicks rule, OK.” But then again, they’re preaching to the choir with me.
There’s a point late in Jen George’s The Babysitter at Rest when an aspiring artist named Lee earns entry into an arts program held inside the Aqueduct racetrack during the offseason. While there, between cleaning concession stands and burying dead horses, she is expected to a complete one large art project each month. For her first month, Lee paints “Your Unceasing Fantasy Will Not Conjure the Desired into Being,” “a series of one hundred watercolors depicting women in various states of longing/desire/dreaming/despair with their eyes slightly crossed, mouths mostly open, vaginas reluctantly dry.” Her instructor, known as “The Teacher/older man with large hands,” decrees that the work is “sexy as hell while being totally amateur and bad.” Lee soon ends up sleeping with him. This section of the story is bears the title “Early work.”
This debut collection, out now from Dorothy, a publishing project, may represent George’s early work, though there is nothing amateur or bad about it. (Sexiness, of course, remains subjective.) The five stories contained within the book can certainly be seen as five portraits of women in various stages of longing/desire/dreaming/despair. They are creatively and sexually frustrated, subject to the caprices of men, machines, mortality, and other arbitrary powers.
The opener, “Guidance / The Party,” is a diptych. The first section, told from the perspective of a woman, age 33, documents the arrival of The Guide, an angelic figure in heavy robes with illuminated skin and blindingly white teeth. Bursting into her apartment via a screened window overlooking the fire escape, The Guide informs the narrator that she has aged but not matured. The Guide (who is referred to always using plural pronouns like we and they) has come to prep the narrator for a party to mark the occasion of her transition into real adulthood. “You must send out invitations,” they explain. “Invitations are formal; guest show up having RSVP’d. People will most likely speak about articles they’ve read and restaurants they’ve been to. Regarding television, follow people’s cues so as not to let on how much television you actually watch. Avoid overtly solipsistic topics like childhood or family stories. Do not overshare.” The guide delivers the protagonist a thick manual, full of symbols she “cannot make sense of and lists of rules. Also, some questionnaires and a page of hygiene tips.” The story is formatted in much the same manner, with titled sections dedicated to subjects like Excuses, Friends/regret, Maintenance, and Stretches & such. Even as The Guide criticizes every aspect of the narrator’s life — and takes naps, and gets drunk — the narrator finds herself increasing attracted to The Guide, unsure of what she will do once The Guide departs.
The second section covers the party itself. The perspective shifts to the third person: the narrator has become The Host, though the appellation seems an optimistic one meant to buttress the woman’s confidence. The Host has attempted to expunge her apartment of all trappings of immaturity, as per The Guide’s instructions. She has redecorated to suggest her own sophistication. She makes a 10,101-ingredient mole, which includes “liquefied frankincense and powdered rotten tooth that belonged to The Host, hand ground with a jade mortar and pestle.” As the guests show up (none of them actual friends, so as not to risk the presence of emotional baggage), The Host attempts to remain calm, though she frequently escapes to the kitchen to pretend to “check the oven.” The story is a catalog of the ways in which a person can feel inferior to her peers, never confident in how or why she is living the way she is, but certain that she’s doing it completely wrong.
The other tales in the collection feature similarly vexing scenarios in which the protagonists are made to squirm before an unsympathetic universe. In “Take Care of Me Forever,” the hospital-bound narrator is diagnosed with increasingly unlikely disorders of the body and mind. With her impending death presumed, she is forced to sacrifice her dignity for the benefit of medical education and the art projects of her various physicians. In “Futures in Child Rearing,” a woman thinking about having a baby seeks answers from a prognostic ovulation machine only to receive responses such as “You will never be able to pay off your credit card debt” and “Get outside and/or a life.” In “Instruction,” which follows the students laboring at the Aqueduct racetrack, The Teacher’s growing obsession with Lee affects an entire generation of artists.
In the wonderfully Gothic title story, the narrator comes to consciousness in a seaside town. She lives in a house with five roommates, and works at a newspaper office where she suspects she is being continually demoted (what begins as a desk job becomes more and more janitorial). She meets Tyler Burnett, the owner of the town’s chemical plant and scion of the local aristocracy, who is three decades her senior. Burnett lives in a house that is slowly falling into the sea with his artistic wife and his infant son. The son is a “forever baby,” who does not age. “It is a curse to have a forever baby,” Burnett tells the narrator. “The baby will never inherit my property, my good looks. I thought the point of having a baby was so you could age and die. You could be released after cursing someone else to this existence. With this baby sealed in infancy, I fear I may live a very, very long time.”
The narrator soon becomes both Burnett’s lover and the infant’s babysitter, a web of relationships that causes her some confusion. “Tyler Burnett buys me a stuffed animal, a pony. ‘What will you name him, child?’ Tyler Burnett says. ‘Pony?’ I say. ‘Wonderful, child. Excellent. You’re a beautiful child.’ He gives me a bag of candy from the grocery store and pats me on the head. At times, I forget if we’re lovers or if he’s my father. He does not feel like a father.” The narrator must also contend with a stalker, a dying roommate, and a recurring bout of arson at her home. As in “Guidance / The Party,” she is constantly navigating the space between childhood and adulthood, weighing the expectations of men and society against her own instincts.
This incongruity between the narrators and their respective worlds forms the collection’s throughline. One might expect the protagonists — each rational in her way — to crack under the complete irrationality of her circumstances. (After all, isn’t that how a normal person would respond?) But these characters do not crack. They check themselves. They adapt. They mold to the expectations of their environments. For this, as the reader realizes, is how things actually are: even when humans are confounded by the illogic that surrounds us, we rarely respond with logic. Instead, we become illogical, so as to meet the world on the same terms. Such is the way that individuals survive.
The collection remains faithful to the Dorothy aesthetic: books that are not only strange and inventive, but strange and inventive in ways that distinguish themselves from each other. Within that family, George’s surrealist comedies are perhaps most reminiscent of Joanna Ruocco’s endlessly digressive (and marvelous) novel, Dan, published by Dorothy in 2014. Broad comparisons to Aimee Bender and Alissa Nutting might also be made, but George’s motley presentation and aversion to explanation mark her as a truly distinctive voice. Her frank dystopias have the charming eccentricity of Edward Gorey illustrations. They do not rely on beauty or brutality or humanistic appeals to sell themselves. Just a vision and a ghoulish sense of humor.
“Like speech, which leaves no mark in the air,” Teju Cole writes in the calmly incantatory and unsettlingly alert Blind Spot, “our bodies leave no mark in space.” On the facing page is a photograph of two Berliners, two strangers, caught in a moment of uncanny resemblance. Blind Spot is comprised of text-image pairings, each of which takes a place-name as its title. Both men are turned away from us, being busy with the work of looking: one studies a sign from his wheelchair while, a ways off, the other leans against a tree. With no faces to know them by, their nearly matching hats take on a disproportionate resonance. (It’s worth noting at the outset that to try to capture the effect of Cole’s photographs, as a reviewer prevented from reproducing the images, is to reckon with a visual eloquence—spare in its means and tending toward a subdued surreal—that often eludes description. It also serves as a reminder that Cole’s facing text never does this work for us, never makes straightforward description its function.) Here the accompanying prose places his looking in time:
A moment later, the man by the trees has moved on. He has not noticed his echo behind him, and the man who echoes him has not noticed him or, even if he has, has certainly not noticed himself noticing him. There are thousands of such echoes and agreements every minute. Almost all go unseen, and almost none are recorded, unless photography intervenes.
In Blind Spot, Cole creates a space in which to notice himself noticing—he’s the third echo in the series, and invites us to stand in as the next—and the result is something richer and more ambiguous than we might have anticipated. Instead of being explained away, the resonance of the more than 150 photographs Cole has taken and collected here is deepened for being met with such sustained and lyrical textual scrutiny, with the free forays of his capacious mind—one that’s often unconsoled but never merely disenchanted.
Cole, a novelist and essayist—and, as we see here, photographer—who writes a column on photography for The New York Times Magazine, garnered a great deal of admiration for Open City, a novel that takes after W.G. Sebald in the way it makes its protagonist not, finally, a young psychiatrist named Julius but instead the solitary consciousness he’s possessed by, subject to the laws of dream and memory, capable of being swept up on “aimless walks” by all sorts of unsuspected associations, echoes, agreements. In this way, Julius’s inwardness both enforces his separation from the world and ties him to it. More than a few passages in Open City would be perfectly at home if set beside an image in Blind Spot. The reverse is true too: It might have been Julius who said to us, as Cole does in a memorable and almost definitive aside, “I’ve been walking for hours. I’m lost as usual in the precincts that others call home.”
Here, for instance, is Julius thinking back on his father’s burial—or, more precisely, taking up the way time has transformed its meaning, melding the original memory with other and later impressions, freighting this most personal of associations with a significance that moves from the fixity of pain to something at once more encompassing and more emotionally uncertain:
I was on the 1 train on the way to work when it came to mind that he had been committed to earth for exactly eighteen years. In that time, I had complicated the memory of the day, not with other burials, of which I had attended only a few, but with depictions of burials—El Greco’s Burial of the Count of Orgaz, Courbet’s Burial at Ornans—so that the actual event had taken on the characteristics of those images, and in doing so had become faint and unreliable…Sometimes, in waking dreams, I imagined my father with coins on his eyes, and a solemn boatman collecting them from him, and granting him passage.
Those “coins on his eyes” hark back to an earlier passage in which Julius broods on a shipwreck of slaves, some of whose bodies were recovered with relics traditional to their countries of origin. He has come to know his father, in the long remembering, as someone marked intimately by the sweep of history—and, so too, as a presence impossible to disentangle from artworks that might seem alien to that history. So they multiply, the complicating pressures on memory. And if much of the pathos of this passage arises from a muted sense of misgiving at the way memory and imagination spiral out from—and threaten to attenuate—the personal, part of the originality and force of Cole’s vision lies in its ultimate commitment to this same movement, its sense of the self as tending, in a rich indeterminacy, beyond the hard and fast dictates of biography.
The view is linked, in Cole’s writing, to an abiding emphasis on the visual plane: we take the work of looking seriously when we realize how deeply formed we are by what we see; or, put a bit differently, how deeply our ways of seeing shape us. Cole was once a child preacher; now his faith, such as it is, rests in the ambiguous resonance of images which, in all their “radical equality,” call us unwaveringly to the making of meanings:
Years later, I lost faith. One form of binocular vision gave way to another. The world was now a series of interleaved apparitions. The thing was an image that could also bear an image. If one of the advantages of irreligion was an acceptance of others, that benefit was strangely echoed in the visual plane, which granted the things seen within the photographic rectangle a radical equality. This in part was why signs, pictures, ads, and murals came to mean so much: they were neither more nor less than the “real” elements by which they were framed. They were not to be excluded, nor were the spaces between things. “We see the world”: this simple statement becomes (Merleau-Ponty has also noted this) a tangled tree of meanings. Which world? See how? We who? Once absolute faith is no longer possible, perception moves forward on a case by case basis. The very contingency and brevity of vision become the long-sought miracle.
Cole works movingly in places to convey this brevity, and there are moments where the goal of the accompanying prose, it seems, is not to further cement the permanence of an image but instead to restore to us a fuller sense of the subject’s precarious—so that much more miraculous—being in time. Here is Cole in an unabashedly faithful moment: there is only connection, sudden happiness of the man who looks up and finds, all unsuspecting, an echoing presence:
I swear he just suddenly appeared. The angel is the one who communicates between realms. Hermes, medium, channel between things, gatherer of potentials, the flow station of being. Is this Indra, who was as precocious as Hermes was, borne on the winds as Hermes was? Or is it Ganesh, messenger of the gods, opener of roads, first port of worshippers’ call? Out in the sun that day, some kind of Catholic procession was going on, raucous around the old cathedral, but inside the café of the Datta Prasad Hotel, a hermetic air reigned. I raised my camera slowly. His glance took hold of me.
The glance we see, tellingly, is not the kind we’d immediately expect to take hold of somebody. It is shadowed in more than one sense. There’s a surprising guardedness to the man’s expression, for all the ease of his pose, a decided and still-deciding inwardness. Cole’s echo, in other words, doesn’t simply sound the note of uncomplicated presence: he’s not entirely “in the moment,” to take up the truism, nor of it. He’s both there and elsewhere—a reminder that when we look out on the world we do so not just with the eye but with the whole mind. If this imposes a certain distance between us and what we see, it also heightens the possibility of human connection, since the mind’s entry allows for the act of association, that essential human art of drawing connections between things, of more deeply seeing what’s before you by following it out to what isn’t. Here is Cole in two places at once, in a single moment of vision:
“In a dark time, the eye begins to see.” Quite by chance, while I was taking a photograph of the one-eyed car in Zürich—late afternoon, and the sun was going from the streets—I heard a friend’s voice behind me. “Was machst du denn da?” She laughed. I turned around and saw in her eyes a gale force grief, for her mother had only just died the previous week.
Cole has found himself in a row of stalled Bombay cabs, and a passenger in the next car but one has turned to look at him with an intensity that is as hard to ignore as it is to account for. There’s something staggering about the way text and image come together here to hit on a truth slantly, accumulating force by a shared indirection, looking head-on by looking away. We have to picture that “gale force grief,” and we see it more terribly for Cole’s not placing it before us. Part of what this pairing does so successfully is to meet us with a double sense of dislocation: that of Cole seeing past his friend’s casual laughter in Switzerland to something not spoken; and now, in putting the book together—its associations mimicking the work of memory—bearing us on to this man returning his glance in Bombay. The man is very conspicuously at a remove—the frames of four taxi windows come between him and Cole—and yet this framing has the effect of intensifying the instant’s exchange. Such is the sense of heightened concentration, of a zeroing-in, that it’s easy to miss a passenger bent over in the middle cab. To spot him is to inhabit even more fully a space of belated recognition, to live out Cole’s moment—on that street in Switzerland, taking a photograph other than the one we see—of awful clarity.
It’s a clarity that leaves Cole wary of a certain easy sort of beauty, even as he lets us feel its lure. Sometimes his text works to subvert the silent impress of an image. By way of the minute detail or great vista, history is always entering in. Next to a commanding mountainside scene, he sets this:
Windless day. Optical bliss. Many years later, and only in the current century, the government agreed to a fund out of which they would be paid, these now grown children who had been taken from their families, tens of thousands of them, and placed as slave labor in farms all around the country, the Verdingkinder as they are known, the contract children, back when Switzerland was not as rich as it now is. The fund was about half a billion francs. What it could not salve was the memories for these children of unmarried mothers, these gypsy children, these poor children: the angry shouts, the cold nights that cut like a blade, the hatred we naturally bear toward the weak and helpless, the terror of the long days in those mountains with their rough stones and vertiginousness and mocking beauty.
There’s a tragic strain in Cole’s vision, and you feel its full measure in the shock of that last pronoun—“the hatred we naturally bear toward the weak and helpless”—which acknowledges this thing of darkness as our own. And still the lyric accumulations of the last sentence (“the angry shouts, the cold nights”) work toward a different kind of identification, one with the children in question. It is borne of a bracing compassion. Elsewhere Cole offers a memorable definition of man as “the animal that can mourn strangers.” It’s a capacity on display in a lovely elegy-in-miniature, one that shows the suggestive power of Cole’s eye as well his deep trust in what he calls “the common”:
He was frail when I last saw him read. This was in 2010, some years after the stroke. I don’t remember if he had trouble walking then, but we thought of mobility because he read from “Miracle”:
Not the one who takes up his bed and walks
But the ones who have known him all along
And carry him in—
There was always bipedal grace in his poetry, the this helping the that, a forward motion. Years later his loss left me tottering.
What do we see? A couple pipes standing in for the great poet. I think Seamus Heaney, he of “A Stove Lid for W.H. Auden,” would have appreciated the gesture. To be surprised and moved by the association is to be reminded that what the imagination sees is truth too. Projection is not simply error. Who but Cole would look closely at a handful of metal fold-up chairs and, without moving his eye, come away with an urgent commentary on Black Lives Matter:
Something in the middle of a group of five. Something on the periphery: something first, something last. Something squeezed. Something brown. Something made of metal but susceptible to injury. Something designed for some other purpose. Something on the street. Something held up by others in its group. Something under pressure. Something exerting pressure. Something seen on the way to a rally in the time of Black Lives Matter.
These are acute acts of perception, and it may be worth applying scrutiny to Cole’s way of defining his project negatively, what with its title: he’s interested, he says, in the limits of vision (in much the same way, he has remarked that Open City “is in part an examination of the limits of sensitivity and of knowledge”). It’s a preoccupation whose urgency can be grounded partly in biography: as Cole has movingly described in an essay that takes the same title, and as he touches on several times here, he has suffered from poor vision his whole life. Quite apart from this, he woke up one day with no sight in his left eye and little in the right, and was ultimately diagnosed with a condition his doctor translates as “big blind spot syndrome”—its cause unknown, transitory but subject to return. Following this unsettling experience, Cole says, “the looking changed.” And though in Blind Spot he stays true to the ambition at a higher scrutiny, striving in passage after passage to “look through the skin of the photograph” for what is left out, to remain in the presence of his patiently accruing acts of attention is to realize that this is finally a constructive project, one animated not only by an ethic of alertness but by a kind of saving enchantment. Here and there Cole takes a photograph of a photograph, and the result persuades you of just that “radical equality” he remarks on. He finds a way of apprehending an artwork, of transparently situating it in place and time, that manages to leave intact its essential mystery:
“They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him….Then Jesus asked him, ‘What is your name?’ He replied, ‘My name is Legion; for we are many.’”
At the Ny Carlsberg Glyptothek in Copenhagen is a photograph of a Catholic procession in rural Southern Italy. Next to it is a high marble relief of a Roman ritual procession from around the time of the Ara Pacis. It depicts a number of women in profile. Between the relief sculpture and the photograph is the museum’s russet wall, split so that which section is in front and which is behind is hard to read. The relief sculpture looks in fact like a photograph of a sculpture, and is difficult to resolve into its three-dimensional form. The women from 1 b.c.e. are on the verge of crossing the red sea and joining their distant Italian daughters and sons.
The facing photograph gives lovely life to this impression. Participants in the less ancient procession, captured in a photograph within the photograph, fix their eyes on us; the women of the Roman sculpture, set in profile, watch them in turn. An intervening sliver of wall does little to diminish the sense of a real looking, an achieved crossing—such is the charged space Cole has patiently created for us, image by image and passage by passage.
Blind Spot is a book composed of such crossings, or the hope of such crossings. Cole says what he values is not the shock of the new but “the shock of familiarity, the impossibility of exact repetition.” Following his mind’s maneuverings, you grow newly sensitive to the superabundance of ordinary transformations that life presents us with. One image enriches, both leans toward and tenses against, another; quietly, somehow, things cohere. In one memorable sequence, a spectator approaches a sculpture in a Chicago museum in more than one sense, the man bowing his head to read a placard and, in so doing, assuming the pose of the sculpted child; both are then lent a probingly unlikely evocation on the following page, in the form of a man in a gray hoodie using a New York payphone; all these are then recalled by an angled lampshade in distant Tivoli.
Such correspondences often strike us over the space of many pages. In its very structure, Blind Spot argues intimately for the capacity of each thing to illuminate, and find itself, in another. And still there are limits Cole remains alert to: grounding experiences that cannot be shared, gulfs he knows knowledge cannot cross. In the end, his close looking and thinking open out on the basic enigma of being. The following passage might have been lived or imagined: it is an existential mystery in miniature, prosaic in its details but imbued with a sense of the uncanny. We are left with a question whose only (and resonant) answer is its own inexact repetition. At the same time, we come away with one photograph, and another (or how many more) that could not quite be taken:
I had parked my car in the shadow of the overhanging rock above the precipice. A man walked past my car, went past the traffic mirror and red safety notice, and stood at the edge. He appeared to be a foreigner. He stood there for a very long time, maybe fifteen minutes. He had a camera but didn’t take any photos. I wondered what kind of life he lived, what his past contained, and how he came to be standing here in this faraway country, at the edge of the precipice. What was he thinking about, there ahead of me?
After taking the photo, I walked past a car parked in the shadow of the overhanging rock above the precipice. I went past the traffic mirror and red safety notice and stood at the edge of the precipice. There was a man in the car behind me, a local, to judge from the plates. He just sat there, not moving, and with no change in his expression. When I turned around and walked past him, probably a quarter of an hour later, his expression was still the same. I imagined that he came here to the edge of the precipice to get away from a difficult life, to enter into aloneness, silence, the cool of the rock’s shadow. What was he thinking about, there behind me?