Theory

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A Year in Reading: Jordy Rosenberg

Sometime early in 2018, one morning of the long “bomb cyclone” in New York City—the kind of day where the dawn doesn’t break, but mizzles down through the wind and fog, pearling the air to a flat winter white for a few short hours until Night tips her inkwell and dark bleeds out again—I finally opened Félix Guattari’s The Anti-Oedipus Papers, a book that had sat undisturbed on my shelf for three years.  

I was finishing a novel at the time, so I wasn’t reading other novels.  Anti-Oedipus Papers are Guattari’s notes to his collaborator, Gilles Deleuze, in preparation for their opus, Anti-Oedipus.  But what madness these notes are: raw philosophy as dream diary, griping and sniping about the Parisian intelligentsia, particularly Jacques Lacan, Guattari’s mentor (but not for long), and quite a bit of agonizing about various love affairs.  Out of this chaotic stew, they created Anti-Oedipus.  I’d like to say that you cannot read these papers and not conclude that Deleuze and Guattari were very much in love, but that would not be simple enough of a claim.  Rather, you cannot read these papers and not conclude that Deleuze and Guattari were the very kind of desiring-machine of which they once wrote. Guattari excreted, Deleuze plugged into the orifice, metabolized the ooze, and a book was born.

Or perhaps Guattari mizzled his light into the undifferentiated night, created an enveloping blankness, and it was into this air that Deleuze tipped his inkwell.

In any case, I needed language that would scramble the omnipresent crush of narrative logic that had subsumed my writing life.  And I needed, too, a book that would unsettle my too-closely held presumptions about sex, desire, and the psyche.  If I couldn’t have my own presumptions unsettled, then neither could my characters.  And consequently, neither could my (projected) reader.  I needed to read a book out of order.  And so I opened The Anti-Oedipus Papers to page 343 to find: “Something about love makes me not be this thing that is at an impasse. Two monads produce a third.  A new taste for the world. . .Analysis is about making the impossible out of the déjà vu.”  The point of analysis (and, I thought to myself then, of writing?) was not to affirm the return of the repressed, but to make the old narratives illegible—and thus to create an opening where there had not been one before.

Speaking of machines, Kay Gabriel’s poetry is something else I read in 2018 when I was studiously avoiding novels.  I feel quite sure that her chapbook, Elegy Department Spring: Candy Sonnets, and her poems in Salvage Quarterly (which, in full disclosure, I was lucky to conduct an interview with her about) are poem-machines, nano-surgeons of the synapses.  My brain was altered in the reading of them, and my understanding of transsexuality will never be the same.  These are the poems I need—not so much to understand my condition as a trans person, but to un-understand the too-easy narratives about it.  It’s not pretty.  I don’t want it to be.  Why should we/why should poetry always have to be pretty?  Gabriel’s poetry gives us the body and desire plowed through with the particulars of late-capitalist logistics and the omnipresence of Amazon-driven transport systems.

When I returned to novels, I did so by way of Patrick Chamoiseau’s Slave Old Man–a novel that tells in inexorable, prismatic, impossible prose the pursuit of an enslaved man–a “mineral of motionless patiences…[h]is eyes are neither shining nor dull but dense, like certain backwaters struck by lightning”–by a slaveholder and his mastiff, “black, gleaming into a lunar blue…its muscles bulged like lava bubbles; the pitiless face, unbaptized.” Never have I read a book that so miraculously combines propulsive forward motion with such crystalline, heart-stopping language at the level of the sentence.  Usually the latter–if overfull–overwhelms the former.  Not so here.  Not even close to so.  That Chamoiseau manages to combine these two, moreover, with a metafictive aspect is to my mind nothing short of total alchemy and brilliance.  The reading of this book is an event, and it deserves to be ritualized.  This ritual does not have to be luxurious or expensive, but it should be undertaken with seriousness.  You do not need to go far.  You do not need to go to Europe or even to a cabin in the woods.  Go into a closet with some pillows and read.

Actually, on this question of metafiction: I believe it is a mistake to detail the rise of contemporary metafiction (if you prefer, “literary postmodernity”) like settling a bank account, and yet we have so many scholarly books dedicated to just this approach.  Perhaps an actuarial account of literature is all our hellish world deserves, but we could also read–or reread–the section on “The Solar System” in Eileen Myles’s Cool for You, as I did in 2018, for a more organic view.  For some of us, the love of science fiction means we cannot bear to conduct a forensics on the genre; we do not want to know its molecular secrets, and for this reason we do not write in that genre.  This diversion from the forensic results, instead, is a particular kind of metafiction that has not yet been properly analyzed in academic accounts.  Metafiction as a form of desire. A paean.  Is there such a thing as celestial ekphrastics?  Yes there is: “Pluto is holding a bowl of ideas that were formerly tropical, like ice cream and fruit.”

We cannot talk about science fiction without discussing the long history of racism in science fiction.  In 2018, the great author Samuel Delany republished his 1998 essay, “Racism and Science Fiction”–which conducts a number of crucial arguments (which have only become both more salient and more complex) regarding the perceived split in the field between Afro-Futurism and subgenres such as cyberpunk–alongside a new novella, The Atheist in the Attic.  I had been eagerly awaiting this novella since Delany had made reference to it on a panel at NYU in 2017.  The novella would concern cannibals and Spinoza, he said.  Cannibals and Spinoza??  I could hardly wait.

The Atheist is wonderful.  It, like all of Delany’s work, is dense with significance and extraordinary in its prose.  It, like all of Delany’s work, constellates questions of embodiment (indeed, excrement) and high philosophy.  In my opinion it returns Spinoza and those figures of what has been termed the “radical Enlightenment” to their rightful context: the odiferous living world of the pulse, the body, and the socius.

In 2018 I finally read N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season.  I had been putting this off.  I believe now that this resistance had to do with a fear of falling in love.  But now I have fallen in love and I am a lunatic proselytizer for this book which does not need another proselytizer, least of all me.  Still, I will say that this book is joy, absorption and technical mastery incarnate.  It gave me one of the very best weekends I had in 2018, just me and it.  And without producing any spoilers I will say that once I arrived at the last third of the book, I found myself inhabiting the single best rendition of utopian longing and the fleshly, compromised, and deeply joyful flashes of affect associated with it that I have ever read.  I did weep.

The book that I adorned with the greatest number of bookmarks and post-it notes in 2018 is Dionne Brand’s Theory.  In structure, a tripartite story of three love affairs conducted by a PhD student trying to finish her dissertation.  The book is an exacting, detail-obsessed limning of the contours of these lovers, and of the interior textures of relationships from the perspective of someone who (sound familiar?) is hamstrung by a preponderance of abstract thought. The book is a non-dialectical progression through the three sections, a series of repetitions-with-a-difference of the Oedipal and supra-Oedipal arcs of love.  It maintains an unflinching gaze on the limitations of its narrator, who withholds beloved bedtime poetry readings from a girlfriend simply due to the ordinary, relatable experience of forgetfulness, postponement, and indeed the creeping pettiness of love.  “We are all,” proclaims the narrator, following a citational litany of the very poems she could not read to her lover (which, in litanizing, she in fact “reads” to us, her anonymous audience) “small people in relationships.”

Theory, it turns out, is not only the title of the book, but the pet name of the narrator given to her by an ex-lover: “’Theoria. . .’ that is what Odalys called me.  ‘Teoria, you are too much in your head.  Before you can do something you think it out of existence. . .You lack an anchor; you lack a thing that you love.’”  And this is because theorizing something is not the same as loving it.  Just as writing about a lover is not the same thing as loving her.

One could say that Teoria is stuck; even she believes this: “My lovers never change.  It is as if I’ve loved the same person all these years.”  But then there is a secret, fourth love story sequestered in Theory.  A love story that isn’t written as a narrative arc, as are the first three, but as citations interspersed throughout the text.  “It has become necessary to locate social memory outside the body,” muses a pair of what might be characters/editors/authors, cited in a footnote as “C. Sharpe/Teoria.”  Why is relocating social memory necessary?  To unfreight the body of the histories it bears.  This, too–to recall the weep-worthy moments in Jemisin–is a utopian horizon: “[b]y relocating memory outside the body rather than insistently stigmatizing the body through the reproduction of particular historical moments,” we open out to something else.  This relocation is the site of the sequestered fourth love story: non-narrative, metafictional, citational, collective.  Love, after all, is not writing the lover, but thinking together with her.

I read many books in 2018, and especially after having been freed of writing my own novel, I experienced an intense appreciation for and awe of the sweat and labor of other writers.  I returned renewed to reading this year, and I loved all these books deeply.  But of all the books I read in 2018, Dionne Brand’s Theory is the book that read me.

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