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.
Unless you’re inhuman or illiterate, you’ve felt the frisson of joy delivered by an instance of perfect mimesis in fiction — that moment when a writer gets something so recognizably right that the act of recognition itself seems to confer a new reality upon the experience. Yes! you might say, that’s exactly how it is, and underscoring your pleasure there might be recognition of another sort: the writer’s recognition of your own experience of the world.
Then there’s the convincing depiction of experience that’s recognizable, yet once-removed. For simplicity’s sake, for the moment let’s stick with experience or behavior rather than natural occurrence. Someone you might not have known or seen or heard firsthand becomes, through the deftness of the writer’s rendering, distinctly and convincingly familiar. Yes, you might say in this case, that’s what it must be to be someone like that. That’s how he would talk. That’s just what would happen. Reading Zadie Smith’s NW, for instance, when a distressed Natalie (Keisha) wanders the streets of her old neighborhood with Nathan, who’s never managed to escape its dire demographics, you might — if you were someone like me — never have known someone quite like Nathan, but now you do. You can hear him say, as surely as if he’d been standing next to you, “Everyone loves a bredrin when he’s ten…After that he’s a problem…That’s how it is…There’s no way to live in this country when you’re grown.”
Or another type, one you’ve observed in one form or another, might become not just credible but comprehensible, as in the work of Curtis Sittenfeld in American Wife. You might have asked yourself (again, if you’re like me, sadly), How is it possible to be Laura Bush? A smart, educated, seemingly enlightened woman as the self-affirmed conjugal flak of a spoiled, failed child of privilege turned evangelical war-mongering anti-intellectual politician on the world stage? And in Sittenfeld’s fiction you might find an answer that resonates.
Move one step further away from what you know, and you may be confronted with a character who’s conceivable even though he or she might not exist. Yes, you say in this case, it’s entirely credible that a character might be made up of such components — now I see her! — yes! — that’s what she’d say or do! She might be Oedipa Maas of The Crying of Lot 49. Or Jack Gladney, pioneering the field of Hitler Studies in White Noise. Or David Foster Wallace’s Orin Incandenza. Or Charles Dickens’s Mr. Dick.
But what about experience that’s inconceivable to most of us — an act of genius, a moment of utmost extremity, a visit to the moon, a chat with Kim Jong-un, falling to the guillotine, challenging Julius Caesar? Anyone who has read The Iliad and understood that the pouting Achilles was a hero to Homer’s audience must know that what we understand to be verisimilitude, let alone storytelling and heroism, is in some philosophical, even existential way uncommunicable across time and culture. And when we realize that nothing resembling what we understand to be a novel was written in the West before the 1600s or in the East before 11th century, we have to concede that fiction as a conveyance of experience, a depiction of reality, a connection between writer and reader is susceptible to time and interpretation.
What do we want from it anyway, aside from the oh-get-me-from-here-to-there-already of plot, a perfectly acceptable demand for the satisfactions of seeing things make sense? This was a question that — oddly, perhaps — came up for me as I was reading Ethan Canin’s new novel, A Doubter’s Almanac. Canin is, in the old-fashioned sense, as Henry James said of Nathaniel Hawthorne, “a beautiful writer.” His clear predecessor is the F. Scott Fitzgerald of The Great Gatsby, as he can so perfectly capture a thought, a gesture, a look, a detail, or an event as it means something to a character whose reflections he’s so precisely and evocatively conveyed that it means something to us. In this new book, the narrator is something of a mathematical savant, son of the not-at-all-somewhat mathematical genius whose story the first half tells and the second half retells from another perspective.
This is fiction that captures reality in a way that’s quite different from what I’ve described so far, because the reality that Canin is depicting is, for the most part, philosophical. The novel is steeped in a mathematical sensibility. In his father’s mind, Hans, the narrator, tells us, “all the other academic disciplines — including the physical sciences …were irrevocably tainted by their debt to substance.” And again and again we are asked to view the world as someone like Hans’s father, Milo, might — purely, you might say, without reference to its physical coordinates, though the physical coordinates are what orient Milo and make him aware of his gift, as we see when we first witness his extraordinary “positional aptitude” — his uncanny ability to know precisely where he is on the “plane of the earth” — a “sort of intrinsic, spatial mapping.”
“Mathematics is an invented science,” Milo tells Hans. “But strangely,” he continues, “the inventions of mathematics, which are wholly constructions of the mind, are in turn able to yield other inventions. That is why they seem more like discoveries than creations. In fact the distinction remains a debate…I also believe that this is why so many mathematicians feel that they have been privy to the language of God.”
He thought for a moment. ‘Although I should also say that I’ve thought of it in other ways, too. As the language of the mind, for example. Or even’—here he turned to me more thoughtfully — ‘as the language of language. The underlier of grammar. The skeleton of cognition. The rails on which the train of human advance steams up and down, one hill after the next.’
At this point, a mulberry twig falls onto the lawn in front of father and son. “Squirrels,” Hans says, looking up. The squirrels, of course, are the point. “Mathematics,” Milo says, “is like carving a wooden doll…and then, one day, you watch as your wooden doll gives birth to another wooden doll.” In its form and its fashion, the novel raises the question: do we look to fiction for the wooden doll or the squirrel?
In A Doubter’s Almanac, Ethan Canin gives us a truly convincing picture of what it’s like to experience the world as most of us, probably, don’t. This is life in the abstract, which, predictably, doesn’t work out very well for those who are privy to this intellectually elevated existence. When Milo has failed in worldly terms: “His mind, he realized, was his only friend.”
Though Canin wants us to care about Milo and his mathematically gifted children and grandchildren, what’s far more convincing is what’s familiar: “We watched a pair of red ants pitilessly drag a thrashing inchworm across the sand. It was like the ending of a great novel.”
An inchworm or mayflies or lily pads: Canin takes us back to that moment of mimesis that reminds us of our connection to someone else’s vision or experience of the world:
My mother looked up at the cloud of wings and feelers. ‘Mayflies,’ she said.
‘They seem to be committing suicide in pairs.’
’You’re right.’ She leaned back and let out a sigh. ‘They’re mating.’
There is in this novel a strange tension that makes me, at any rate, wonder what we ask of fiction anymore. Does it, as in the work of Lydia Davis or Diane Williams or perhaps even Jenny Offill, ask us to question how we experience reality — or whether we experience it differently than others might? Or does it allow us to confirm what we think we know? In A Doubter’s Almanac we have two worlds, and two forms of fiction, in uneasy coexistence, one that psychologist Jerome Bruner says establishes “not truth but verisimilitude” and one that — in Bruner’s view not fiction but argument — “verifies by eventual appeal to procedures for establishing formal and empirical proof.”
Just as, in a world that contains photography, a painter must reconsider the value of representationalism, a fiction writer in an age of the extraordinary documentation of television and the Internet, where every last little feature of reality might be found and viewed from virtually every angle, must reevaluate the merit of capturing every detail, every moment, of a story. Is that exquisite word picture of a person, a gesture, an instant — that yes! of recognition — what we want? Or do we want something different, something new, some sense that, with the same words, in the same world, we might, through the workings of fiction, find a way to rethink reality — and to find the familiar strange, the world an ever bigger, more interesting place?
Observing his daughter, the next generation of mathematical genius, admiring the carpet of lily pads on a slow spot in the river, Canin’s narrator remarks,
I think Emmy likes the mystery of the spot, too, the way she knows from the undulation of the green that the water is there but never actually sees it. The feeling is much like the joy of mathematics itself, the original secret of the guild: that the miracle of the universe can be worshipped without actually witnessing the divine.
I also think she might be counting the lily pads.
Worship the miracle of the universe, witness the divine, count the lily pads: what do we, as readers of fiction, want to do?
Tom Perrotta occupies a rare and privileged place in American letters: the literary writer with popular appeal. He writes serious, thoughtful realism, but his stories have mass appeal: his novels Election and Little Children have both become Academy Award-nominated films, the film version of The Abstinence Teacher is in production, and The Leftovers has recently been picked up as an HBO series. Nine Inches is Perrotta’s first book of short stories since 1994’s Bad Haircut: Stories of the Seventies, and it is being publicized as his first true short story collection (the stories of Bad Haircut are all linked by the same protagonist, making it something of a novel-in-stories). The dark suburban tales of Nine Inches are compelling and likely to appeal even to many Americans with no special interest in the short story, a form that has notoriously become the province of the ivory tower. But taken as a collection, Nine Inches reveals a fatal flaw that undermines the skilled artistry: Perrotta’s heavy hand.
Perrotta’s strengths as a writer are clear, and they are remarkable: narrative efficiency and unity of vision. Perrotta’s narrators tell the reader what they need to know, when they need to know it. Details, whether internal or external, serve the development of character motivations and narrative tension. Nothing is wasted on, say, removed rumination or subtle texturizing. Our subject is always clear: these people in these places, with these problems, inevitably driven toward these game-changing epiphanies. Nowhere is this clearer than in Perrotta’s tightly-constructed opening sentences: “The Superior Wallcoverings Wildcats were playing in the Little League championship game, and I wanted them to lose”; “Ethan didn’t want to go to the middle school dance, but the vice principal twisted his arm”; “In the turbulent, lonely months that followed the collapse of his marriage, Dr. Rick Sims became obsessed with the blues.” Instantly, we have the narrative skeleton: character, conflict, and — perhaps just as essentially for Perrotta’s way of storytelling — the quirk. Passion inspired by a Little league game, coercion into middle school dance attendance, a divorced doctor taking up the blues: there’s a taste of the intriguing in the ordinary, inviting us to watch the drama unfold.
As for unity of vision: first of all, Perrotta’s standard setting is no secret. In fact, it’s his calling card. The blurbs on the back of Nine Inches proclaim it: Perrotta is, according to Time, the “Steinbeck of suburbia,” while USA Today has called him an “astute student of twenty-first-century suburban life.” It is no surprise, then, that Nine Inches’ milieus are without exception suburban, while its concerns are affluent, white, suburban concerns. These concerns frame and underscore the collection’s coherent existential outlook: cynical, exhausted, and oppressed.
As a theme, marital strife dominates. In fact, every one of the marriages at the stories’ forefront is plagued by divorce, adultery, or a medley of the two. Two stories deal with the college application grind: one from the perspective of a good student who ended up somehow rejected from even his “safeties,” the other with a professional SAT-taker. The stories inhabit the same psychic as well as socioeconomic space: they could conceivably take place in the same area code. In fact, they read like various inflections on the same attitude. Life is unfair, this attitude holds. Hard work, good intentions, and a sensitive soul go unrewarded. Institutions will inevitably betray you. And life’s sweetest, most profound moments are to be snatched lustily and illicitly, like the nerd’s revenge in “The Test-Taker” and the adulterous kiss in the title story.
And here we begin to see how Perrotta’s strengths collapse into a flaw. This thematic, geographic, and socioeconomic coherence is what Nine Inches stands on to give it the look of a proper collection, and it is what lets us hear Perrotta’s voice as a voice. It is this unity that earned Nine Inches a comparison to James Joyce’s Dubliners in The Boston Globe. But this well-intentioned coherence also betrays Perrotta’s authenticity as an artist in revealing his heavy hand. Perrotta’s voice, as manifest in these stories, is neither dynamic nor complex. Rather, it is resolute, heavy, and oppressive. It lacks nuance. The comparison to Dubliners turns out to be superficial and lazy; while Joyce’s masterwork illuminates the complexities of human life through its distinctive milieu and voice, Perrotta’s collection elides subtleties in favor of unquestioned certainty: this is how stories work; this is what life is like.
This flaw only becomes clear as the collection unfolds. Though some stories are stronger than others, each piece taken on its own is far more compelling than the collection as a whole. “The Test-Taker,” which I had the pleasure of hearing Perrotta read at an event this past summer, is clever in concept and darkly convincing in execution as it unveils the seemingly cosmically tragic interactions of aspirational high schoolers. But read as the penultimate story in the collection, the perspective and the narrative devices employed to convey it have become monotonous. Nine Inches ends up being less than the sum of its parts. The stories begin to fade from their superficial distinctions into a drone. At times it seems that a new story will offer a truly unique perspective, as in “The Chosen Girl,” which leaves the settings of high school and troubled marriage to consider the difficulties of having one’s son grow up and grow distant. But these rare moments become lost in the flood of sameness. By the collection’s end, the reader is struck by the sense that, however strong Perrotta’s eye for narrative structure, the content of the vision is not only unified, but bleakly unvaried and simple.
Amidst the book’s too-coherent vision, each story’s structure begins to seem too intentional, too pointed, too constructed. The seams start to show. Perrotta is an efficient writer. Perrotta, as Aristotle said of nature, does nothing in vain. But as the collection’s outlook grows increasingly tiring, Perrotta’s tricks start to seem more like tricks. An attentive reader can reliably predict when a flashback is coming, when a scene is going to fade into character exposition, and of what the climax will consist. This is not to say that Perrotta ought to be an experimentalist (which he certainly is not), or that there is anything inherently wrong in sticking to tried and true narrative structures and strategies. But without a rich breadth of perspective, the artistic architecture is bound to start showing. Perrotta would do well to loosen his grip, and to reconsider the way his own attitude overpowers his characters’. He could take a cue from classic collections like Dubliners or Lorrie Moore’s Self-Help, or even Jim Gavin’s recent and masterful Middle Men, and see that stories need not be univocal for a collection to be coherent: better that they harmonize instead.
“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?
In a genre dominated by by-the-numbers sagas of suffering and redemption, Gregoire Bouillier’s is a refreshingly odd voice. The bulk of his memoir, The Mystery Guest takes place in the space of a single day – a day in which not much happens. And yet, with its restless intelligence, The Mystery Guest manages to encompass all the thematic preoccupations of its touchstone, Mrs. Dalloway: time, fate, and the meaning of life. And unlike Ms. Woolf, Bouillier keeps us laughing.When we meet our protagonist, a failed writer and ex-boyfriend pushing middle age, the filmmaker Michel Leiris has just died. A wry depressive, Bouillier (it’s unclear how much of the book is fictionalized) is interrupted mid-eulogy by a call from his ex-girlfriend, whom he still loves.”How appropriate flashed through my mind. And on the same day Michel Leiris died […] Of course that’s what had happened: she’d heard about Michel Leiris and somehow the fact of his disappearance had made her reappear.”She invites the narrator to a birthday party for the conceptual artist Sophie Calle, who each year has a friend choose a “mystery guest.” This year, the mystery guest is to be…guess who? In the ensuing hundred pages, the narrator will fulfill his role as mystery guest, hoping for some closure with his ex-girlfriend. And of course, once at the party, he will behave like a complete ass – albeit an enlightening one.Until near the end of the book, The Mystery Guest seems content to be a sort of Gallic Woody Allen routine. Bouillier’s prose, in a supple translation by Lorin Stein, turns every interaction between the narrator and his fellow guests into a comic meditation on the impossibility of communication… And then suddenly, in a stunning reversal, Bouillier sets off the depth charges he’s quietly been planting throughout the book. In the end, we discover that The Mystery Guest isn’t a symphony of missed connections after all, but a kind of hymn to possibility. And though we’ve paid nearly 10 cents a page for the privilege of reading this slim paperback, it leaves us moved, even as we shake our heads in disbelief.”The significance of a dream,” Bouillier writes early on, “has less to do with its overt drama than with the details; a long time ago it struck me that the same was true of real life, of what passes among us for real life.” The Mystery Guest pursues this intuition until the boundaries between the imagined and the fizzle away, leaving the reader in a state of grateful intoxication.