This year I felt that everything I read was self-consciously fractured into fragments. Aggressively broken up. Left to be reassembled by the reader, that is, me. Maybe it had something to do with the time we’re living through: The entire narrative cannot even be forced to make sense, and so it has to be split into apprehensible parts, isolated and then dissected. But it also took on the feel of a stylistic tic, the millennial equivalent of the Victorian social novel.
I developed an acute sensitivity to section breaks. At times I thought I could feel them coming as the sentences decelerated or the apex of the argument was achieved. The author strains toward that break, anticipating the chance to start all over again logically afresh after the ellipses or a clean blank line. Then, like the cartoon coyote, I run into the gap with a crash. The walls are invisible.
Look out, here comes one now.
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It is not only our attention spans that require fragments but our taste. The fragment, the ruin, the miniature, the gloss, the collection, the list: A completeness in incompleteness is the aesthetic. “The fragment is hard and pristine, grows a shiny carapace that protects it from the world outside, actual or textual,” writes Brian Dillon in Essayism, itself a gathering of fragments and my favorite book on literature this year, published by the London press Fitzcarraldo, which is indispensable (not to mention stylish).
One benefit of the fragment is that the break between one and another clears the air. Transitions are abrupt: connections are implied but not immediately explained. Cultivating dissonance between fragments is vital: friction creates meaning. “The force and unity of a fragmentary work are precisely the results of struggle and disparities between the parts,” Dillon writes. Sometimes the process feels more curatorial than narrative—an exhibition of potent moments, lined up side by side.
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Such as: I recommended Sarah Manguso’s book of aphorisms 300 Arguments to many people. Her memoiristic lines are exemplary fragments, even arrowheads—pointed to the touch, incisive, jagged yet polished smooth. They are universal but also very personal, emerging from the subjectivity of a successful, mid-career female artist, reflecting on the challenges of the same.
Two friends became particularly obsessed with the book’s surprising insight and force. They were both men. I hope we learned something.
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A critique could be made that any paragraph is its own fragment, assembled into a larger agglomeration like sediment. My first response is that language is all fragments: letters, words, sentences, pages, where does it all start or stop? My second is that fragments can contain multiple paragraphs, or none at all. This is a distinct advantage. Unlike the rest of the above, they have no set form or rule.
To read a book of fragments is to dive into a kind of rockslide. The only way to survive is to fall with it. Ideally the book produces its own logic that becomes apparent over time. Kate Briggs’s This Little Art (also from Fitzcarraldo), a highly fragmented essay on translation, particularly her exercise translating Roland Barthes, is challenging. Briggs writes of grammar, dance, philosophy, London, motherhood in pieces of varying size (single sentences to many pages) and academic complexity. Yet as it accelerates it attains a rhythm and Briggs’s ideas—translation as movement, a way of writing-by-reading—coalesce not by explanation but inference.
This Little Art looks long but it contains a lot of empty space.
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Monographs, models, sketches, introductions, précis: all forms that acknowledge, even embrace, their own lack of comprehensiveness. These are appealing to me as a reader because I can ingest them whole, but also as a writer because I don’t know everything and thus don’t need to pretend to explain it all.
In the vein of non-comprehensiveness, I enjoyed and learned much from Fleur Jaeggy’s These Possible Lives, in which the author recasts the biographies of her three writer subjects—Thomas De Quincey, John Keats, and Marcel Schwob—in an ominous shade of fairy tale using language alone. The benefit of the bio-essays is not their depth but what they choose to highlight, recast, or imagine as close narrative.
Similarly, Stefan Zweig’s Genius and Discovery: Five Historical Miniatures narrates moments of epiphany and extreme action. They are extended newspaper articles written by a novelist who did an unclear amount of research and made up an unclear amount of quotes. The tales are not sinister or abrasive enough to be totally interesting, save for the first, a Spanish colonial stowaway who manages to hustle his (violent) way into being the first European to see the Pacific Ocean from the Americas.
I read Guido Beltramini’s The Private Palladio as much as for its incompleteness as the facts it does present. Not everything is known about Andrea Palladio, one of history’s most famous architects. His past is shattered into pieces too fine to reassemble. That historical silence or untranslatability Anne Carson refers to as “white paint” in her own collection of fragments, Float.
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What I like about fragments is you can sift through them with your hands. Or your mind. It’s so hard to be certain; it’s so hard to finish much of anything at all. I don’t work in an office building nine to six. My writing time is already broken into meaningless pieces between cafés, bookstores, museums, and a coworking desk. This disjunction has only heightened for me in 2017, personally and politically. Maybe the written fragments reflect or assuage my own state of dis-integration.
Reading the fragment is like picking up a coffee as you walk down the city street. It might not change your life but it’ll change your day, or however that one goes. (Apparently it’s a self-help maxim.) To be honest, that seems like enough to accomplish right now.
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I think my desire for fragments is for something (an art) that is nothing but itself.
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