The Principles of Uncertainty

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The Beauty I Long For: Maira Kalman and the Principles of Uncertainty

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I find Maira Kalman’s sensibility and work difficult to describe to the uninitiated. She’s a visual artist and writer whose work combines photographs, text, and deceptively simple paintings—the kind of simple that takes considerable thought and skill—to form a record of what seems to me to be a ceaseless quest to understand this world, to appreciate its beauty, and to create some record of her life.

She was born in Tel Aviv, and immigrated to the United States at the age of four. Her books are quirky, deeply moving, and beautiful documents of life on earth. She considers Spinoza, George Washington, fruit platters, her dog, the nature of war. If this sounds incoherent, it isn’t. “I am trying to figure out two very simple things,” she said once at a TED conference. You can find the video on YouTube. “How to live, and how to die. Period. That’s all I’m trying to do, all day long.”

I picked up The Principles of Uncertainty in a bookstore a year or so ago, and bought it because I couldn’t put it down.

I’d first been introduced to her work some years earlier by an office mate. Let’s call her Jane. We worked for different small businesses in the same Midtown Manhattan office suite, Jane and I, in a tower just above Grand Central Station. We were slogging it out together in the shadow world of dreary part-time day jobs and interesting-but-not-terribly-lucrative artistic careers. She was an actor, I was writing my first novel, and our jobs were neither particularly good nor particularly awful.

The office where I worked had white walls, a rippling carpet in a depressing shade of pink, and a horribly cheap desk whose fake-wood veneer was peeling off the particle board in strips. I worked on an ugly Dell laptop that only intermittently worked. When it stopped working I had to call Dell’s customer service line, by which I mean that I’d devote an hour to listening to hold music from overseas and then get disconnected in a burst of static. When I looked out the window the sheer glass wall of the Hyatt hotel only reflected my window back at me. The room’s saving grace was the existence of a floor lamp; when I was alone in the office I closed the door, turned off the fluorescent overheads and took refuge in low lighting and soft music.

In those days The Principles of Uncertainty existed only as a ravishingly beautiful weekly feature on the New York Times website. I thought, looking over Jane’s shoulder as she showed it to me: this is the beauty I long for. There were beautiful things in my life outside work, but my life in the office was a wasteland. This is sometimes the hardest thing to reconcile in the fraught territory of art and day jobs: the complete divide between the part of your life that pays your rent and the part of your life that you consider your career, the part that brings you joy and fulfilment. In a perfect world one’s art would be sustaining all by itself, but the truth is that particularly dreary day jobs are somewhat harder to bear before one’s had much success. I acquired an agent during my time in the office suite, but no publisher.

Just about the only beauty to be found in and around my day job in those days was Maira Kalman’s regular New York Times feature, and down below the office tower when I passed twice daily through the echoing cathedral of Grand Central Station. I would steal glances at the starred ceiling of the Main Concourse on my way to work every morning. Look at this beautiful city I’ve landed in. Look at this cathedral for trains.

Two or three day jobs and several years later, in an entirely different version of my life (two published books; Brooklyn; two cats) I attended a Bat Mitzvah at the Jewish Museum. After the service we slipped out of the event room to take a look at the Museum, my husband and I. “There’s an artist exhibiting on this floor,” he said. I saw the exhibition title and my heart sped up a little. Maira Kalman: Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World.)

The exhibition of her work, which runs through the end of July, has the feel of extreme curation. It occupies three rooms, but if they’d given her the run of the entire museum I suspect she could have filled it. She is a prolific artist and an avid collector. The New Yorker has a slideshow of Maira Kalman setting up her exhibit. She looks very focused. She wears an excellent hat.

There are the paintings, of course, many of them originals of the images that appear in The Principles of Uncertainty and in her other books. Paintings of flowers, a Snickers bar, a pickle tag (3 UNITED PICKLE), sunny days in parks and gardens, a body in the snow. Emily Dickinson in a white dress with a black dog at her side, radiant against a background of deepest blue. A pale boy of about twelve, all in white, legs crossed, smiling and carefree on a curved red chair, Kalman’s gorgeously uneven handwriting on the wall above him: “Nabokov’s family fled Russia. How could the young Nabokov, sitting innocently and elegantly in a red chair, leafing through a Book on Butterflies imagine such displacement. Such loss.” It might be my favorite image of hers.

In The Principles of Uncertainty the Nabokov piece is part of a larger musing on death and displacement that concludes with a map drawn by Kalman’s mother, a map of the world through her eyes: Canada is a grey mass along the top edge, a formless shadow that makes me think of Nabokov’s Zembla as described in the last four words of Pale Fire: A distant northern land. The states are jumbled chaotically together in the blue field of the United States, and down toward New York State the map slides into surrealism: Jerusalem abuts New York, with Tel Aviv and the name of the Russian town where Kalman’s mother grew up close on the other side. It’s a jumble, a map drawn by a woman who fled Russia for Palestine and then left Israel for the United States, a map of displacements and complicated flights. “She is no longer alive,” Kalman’s handwriting reads, “and it is impossible to bear. She loved Fred Astaire. And there you go. On you go. Hapless, heroic us.”

Her affection for us shines through every painting, every word. She moves through life with a camera and a sketchbook, documenting our passions, our hairstyles, our hats. She has a fondness for beautiful objects. Her collected objects dominate the largest of her Jewish Museum exhibit’s three rooms. Because so many of them appear in her paintings, seeing them is a bit like coming across old friends.

There are simple wooden ladders, an empty hat stand. A glass case whose contents I spent a long time studying:

A miniature white chair, hard and severe-looking.
A very small white funnel.
A dried pomegranate.
A selection of chaotic beautifully paint rags: “paint rags on linens taken quietly from hotels.”
Language self-instruction books, quite old: Colloquial Persian, Colloquial Bengali, Marathi Self-Taught, Telugu Without Tutor, Teach Yourself Gujarati. (Overheard by the glass case: “Gujarati! That would be good for you.”)
A brass whistle, a brass egg. A leather pouch. An enormous rusted skeleton key. Assorted varieties of string.

Another case holds a shoebox labeled Mosses of Long Island. A teacup. A jar of buttons. A slinky. A hotel desk bell. Something like a giant rolodex. Pinking shears. Elsewhere, a list of colours found in Madame Bovary (green cloth / black buttons / red wrists…) And old suitcases, which is wonderful, because I love old suitcases: one of my prized possessions is the small monogrammed suitcase that my grandmother took with her when she left home in the 1930s. I’ve had it for as long as I can remember.

I think sometimes about the way objects tie us to the past. My relationship with my grandmother was uneasy at best, but we had some initials and a love of books and travel in common, and there was an earlier version of her whom I wish I could have met: a stylish young woman with a fondness for smart hats who packed a suitcase stamped ESJ—Ella St. John—and set off for the capital of my distant northern land.

There are quotes written high up on the museum walls:

“As if the fullness of the soul did not sometimes overflow in the emptiest metaphors, since no one can ever give the exact measure of his needs, nor of his conceptions, nor of his sorrows; and since human speech is like a cracked tin kettle, on which we hammer out tunes to make bears dance when we long to move the stars.”
 -Gustave Flaubert (Mme Bovary)

I feel like that every time I write a novel. Hung on the wall in another room, white fabric with embroidered text: My rigid heart is tenderly unmanned.

There are videos. Maira Kalman putting in an installation in the new library of PS 147: the theme was the alphabet, and she spent some months collecting objects to mount on the walls above the shelving.

I just started looking for all these beautiful objects around us, that are not expensive, and that are part of the vernacular of what children would be looking at in their daily lives and I wanted them to see that in every mundane object there’s incredible design and incredible ability to use your imagination and make it into something else, which is what everybody has to do in their life no matter what job they have.

In my favorite clip, Maira Plays the Accordion As Pete Listens Patiently, the artist plays the accordion with some hesitation while the camera pans over her dog’s fur, his patient face.

“I was going to say, she’s a little wacky,” an older woman said, putting down the headphones and moving away from the video with her friend. But aren’t most of us? And don’t you have to be? It’s not an easy world to live in.

The exhibition “Maira Kalman: Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World)” runs at the Jewish Museum in Manhattan (1109 5th Ave at 92nd St, New York NY) through July 31.

Kindle-Proof Your Book in Seven Easy Steps!

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A little over three years ago, in a fit of apparent insanity, a New York-based independent press bought a sizeable chunk of the short-story collection I’d been working on and published it as a stand-alone volume. I remain proud of the book, A Field Guide to the North American Family, which was reissued last month in paperback. A lot has changed since the end of 2007, though, and the new edition has me thinking again about a couple of misapprehensions I was laboring under at the time of its writing. The first was that inserting an “illustrated fiction” into an otherwise un-illustrated cycle of stories was just the thing to ignite the bidding war that would make me a millionaire. (Thanks a lot, W.G. Sebald!) The more important, related misapprehension, though, has to do with “the future of the book.”

In college, I had been an extracurricular binge-reader of 1960s and ’70s “experimental” literature, in secret rebellion against the masterpieces-only Atkins diet that comprised my coursework. Even in my mid-twenties, I was convinced that the novel of the future would incorporate as much Cortazar and Cather, as much Willie Masters as Wilhelm Meister. History had different ideas, as usual. Two weeks after my exuberantly book-y book came out – replete with color photography and typographic mayhem – Amazon launched the first Kindle, which sold out in less than a day. The book of the future, it turned out, had a built-in battery. And what I’d just published would never work on it.

Then again, as my therapist suggests (though my accountant begs to differ) maybe this accidental Kindle-proofing is a blessing in disguise. My nostalgia for print, after all, is something like Balzac’s for the wooden printing press in Lost Illusions:
At the time when this story opens, the Stanhope press and the ink-distributing roller had not yet come into use in small provincial printing-houses…. [Now] the rapid spread of machine presses has swept away all this obsolete gear to which, for all its imperfections, we owe the beautiful books printed by Elzevir, Plantin, Aldus Didot, and the rest…
In the novel that follows, Balzac links speedier and more efficient printing technology, and the larger cultural pressures it stands for, to the artistic failures of his would-be hero, the “provincial” Lucien Chardon. Unable to withstand the allure of a fast franc, Lucien becomes in Paris whatever is French for “sellout.” (Not to mention – horrors – a critic!) But I would become no Lucien Chardon – not with Field Guide, anyway. To “sell out,” you first have to sell, and in committing to the ideal of the “beautiful” book, I had pretty much guaranteed that this particular project would remain unsullied by commerce.

Now, in honor of the future that never was, the durable pigments of the almost obsolete, I offer you the following trade secrets to fellow writers. The availability for the Kindle of some of the titles mentioned below points to the difficulty of the task; nonetheless, here are:

Seven Ways to Kindle-proof Your Book

Step 1. Use Color
The iPad and Barnes & Noble’s NookColor have already gone some way toward countering this strategy, and Amazon is rumored to have plans to follow suit with a full color, full-functionality tablet.  As of this writing, however, the top-selling eReader, the Kindle, remains a black-and-white only affair. I suggest, then, that all of you aspiring Kindle-proofers out there familiarize yourselves with the color palette on your word-processors. You may, as Mark Z. Danielewski does in House of Leaves, choose to assign a single word its own color, like the sodapop in the old Cherry 7-Up commercials. (Isn’t it cool…in pink?) Or you may opt for a subtler approach, à la Richard Flanagan. In Gould’s Book of Fish, Flanagan uses a different color for each chapter, to represent the different dyes employed by his ichthycidal narrator. Still not persuaded? I once heard that Faulkner planned to use different-colored type to distinguish the different voices in As I Lay Dying. If it’s good enough for a Nobelist, isn’t it good enough for you?

Step 2. Illustrate, Illustrate, Illustrate
In an essay published in The New Yorker a couple years back, Nicholson Baker complained that “photographs, charts, diagrams, foreign characters, and tables don’t fare so well on the little gray screen” of the Kindle. Of course, as with Step 1, the iPad complicates things, and glossy (“glossy”?) magazine readers are apparently “flocking” to the NookColor. (Constant vigilance is the price of Kindle-proofing!) But it’s worth pointing out that, where words on a page are an abstraction of an abstraction, illustrations are only one representative step away from the visual world. And so the venerable tradition of the illuminated manuscript still seems to favor, at this stage of the game, the codex book. No wonder that, as writers grow anxious about the fate of print, we’re seeing an uptick in illustrated fiction; it’s the literary equivalent of abstract painting’s retort to photography. (This is to say nothing of graphic novels.) Lavishing attention on hand-made illustrations – as in Joe Meno’s Demons in the Spring – or incorporating photographs, like Rod Sweet and Tim Williams’ Instructions for the Apocalypse or Leanne Shapton’s Important Artifacts, is a great way to add an extra exclamation point to your literary pooh-poohing of the eReader.

Step 3. Play With Text, Typeface, and White Space
eReaders currently use two approaches to rendering text. One is quasi-photographic, but the Kindle’s remains the more battery-efficient method of imposing a standard typeface. This makes the effects of a textually playful book like Danielewski’s House of Leaves or Karen Tei Yamashita’s I Hotel or William H. Gass’ The Tunnel – difficult to render on a Kindle. If you want to up the degree of difficulty, you can try combining this with step 1, following Gass’ lead in Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife, wherein text in a range of typefaces and sizes curves and distends and floats around and behind the illustrations. And then there’s white space. Mallarmé may have got there first, but Blake Butler’s There is No Year is moving the ball forward. It’s available for Kindle, but only the good Lord and Jeff Bezos know how it reads there. (I don’t think I need to point out the irony of the Amazon customer review for A Visit from the Goon Squad that finds “the ‘powerpoint’ chapter…extremely difficult to read on the Kindle.”)

Step 4. Run With Scissors
The opening story of John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse, famously invites readers to take scissors to it and create a Mobius strip. This cut-up aesthetic is more literal in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes, which slices and dices the pages of Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles to create pages like lace. It’s a piece of found prose-poetry whose sentences change as you turn the page. Except on the Kindle, where it doesn’t – and couldn’t – exist.

Step 5. Go Aleatory
Narrative fiction, as Vladimir Propp would tell you, need not proceed in a straight line. Presumably, the HopScotching of Cortazar’s Rayuela would be easy enough to approximate via hyperlink on a Kindle, as might something structured like Raymond Queneau’s “A Story As You Like It.” But what about a story where the order of the pieces genuinely doesn’t matter. Or one where an Oulippan element of chance is built in? A narrative like Coover’s “deck of cards” story from A Child Again, say. Or B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates, which consists of a beginning, an ending, and 25 middle chapters to be shuffled and read at random. Speaking of The Unfortunates…

Step 6. Put It In A Box
Gass at one point imagined reinforcing the random, “pile of pages” aspect of The Tunnel by printing it loose-leaf and selling it in a box. It can’t be any coincidence that, in the age of the Kindle, the book as boxed set has been making a comeback. New Directions, in addition to The Unfortunates, has given us the slipcovered (and thus far unKindled) Microscripts of Robert Walser. McSweeney’s, another box-loving press, has delivered any number of issues of the Quarterly, not to mention One Hundred and Forty Five Stories in boxed form. And in 2008, Hotel St. George Press published Ben Greenman’s archetypally box-intensive Correspondences, albeit in a limited edition.

Step 7. Pile on the End Matter
This strategy exploits not so much a technical weakness of the Kindle as a practical one. My theory is that, because the number of pages remaining in a book aren’t palpable on a digital device, readers are less likely to go digging around in appendices, acknowledgments, and so forth. The endnotes function on the Kindle apparently makes it pretty easy to jump from the main text to the famous fine print of Infinite Jest. But with other kinds of end matter, aren’t you likely to hit “The End” and think: I’m done? Writers who sneak interesting and potentially meaningful information into the back of the book are thus a step closer to Kindle-proofing than the rest of us. Here I’m thinking specifically of William T. Vollmann, whose resolutely booktacular books often contain dozens, even hundreds of pages of end matter (interesting in direct proportion to the interest of the main text.) Or Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project. But I was struck, reading Georges Perec’s Life A User’s Manual this spring, by the way the various indexes and appendices offered a variety of possible reformattings of the main text.

Bonus List: 10 Pretty Damn Kindle-Proof (at least, as of this writing) Books:

1. Nox, by Anne Carson (Rules Exploited: 1, 2, 3, 6): In many ways, this boxed version of a mourning journal Carson made after the death of her brother is the paragon of the Kindle-proof book: a book built out of books, and alert to its own status as an object.

2. The Original of Laura, by Vladimir Nabokov (Steps Taken: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5): The chief attraction of this slender posthumous work is its Chip Kidd design, which invites readers to cut out facsimiles of the notecards Nabokov composed on and make their own book…though, given the $35 cover price, I can’t imagine too many readers took Kidd up on it.

3. A Field Guide to the North American Family, by yours truly (1, 2, 3, 5): This is probably the only excuse I’ll ever have to insert my name in a list between Nabokov’s and Jonathan Safran Foer’s. There. I’ve done it.

4. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer (1, 2, 3): A Kindle version of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close actually exists, but, even if Amazon were to insert an animation, there is just no way to achieve in e-form the flip-book effect on which this novel’s conclusion rises…and falls.

5. The Principles of Uncertainty, by Maira Kalman (1, 2): Okay, this is actually pretty easy to recreate on an iPad. But who would want to read this gorgeous thing on a screen?

6. Dictionary of the Khazars, by Milorad Pavic (5): The chief Kindle-resistant feature of Dictionary of the Khazars is that it is actually two books: a “male version” and a (slightly different) “female version,” bound back to back. You move from one to the other by flipping the book over and starting from the other end. Kindle that, Amazon!

7. Only Revolutions, by Mark Z. Danielewski (1, 3, 5): Unlike House of Leaves, the National-Book-Award-nominated Only Revolutions is too insanely Kindle-proof to actually be a good book. I found its main text – which takes the flip & read logic of Pavic a step further – to be a hackneyed pastiche of Finnegans Wake. But you can’t blame a guy for trying.

8. One Hundred Thousand Million Poems, by Raymond Queneau (4, 5): This echt-Oulippan “poetry machine” is a set of 10 sonnets, bound to a spine, but with incisions between the lines that extend out to the edge of the page. Readers can manipulate the pages to form and reform sonnets. Mathematically, there are 1,000,000,000,000,000 possible variations. In theory, an eBook equivalent of this would work beatifully (you’d just have to build in a “shuffle” function) – though by equivalence rather than reproduction.

9. Rising Up and Rising Down (the unabridged version), by William T. Vollmann (2, 3, 5, 7): In theory, this should be the perfect eBook candidate, in the sense that no one wants to lug the damn thing on the subway. It is, in a sense, almost all appendix. I’d bet dollars to donuts, though, that, via the logic sketched in point 7 above, no one would ever get through a digital edition. Vollmann’s detractors would argue that’s a good thing. I’m not so sure…

10. Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak (1, 3): The brilliance of Where the Wild Things Are, as a children’s librarian once pointed out to me, is not just the illustrations, but the way they gradually expand to fill the page spreads (what’s called a full-bleed)…and then recede again into white space. It enacts for children the dialectic of wildness and safety that is the book’s explicit subject, and has, this librarian insisted, a deeply therapeutic effect. Wild Things, that is, uses its book-ness beautifully. You could reproduce this on a screen…but unless the aspect ratio was 2:1, it would have to be in thumbnail form. Perhaps the solution, as Reif Larsen has suggested, is to get away from the idea of reproduction altogether. Rather than deluding ourselves that the eBook is a book, we should think carefully about the effects each can achieve that the other can’t, and then work to find equivalents between them. And lo and behold, a fantastically inventive app of Larsen’s The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet (Steps Taken: 2, 3) is now available for the iPad…perhaps pointing the way to yet another future of the book.

Surprise Me!