Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Fugue + State: Brian Evenson

There are musical fugues and psychological fugues. Brian Evenson's polyphonic new book of psychological short stories, Fugue State, adds the literary fugue to the list.

The psychological fugue state is characterized by a loss of identity, by a wandering away from who one was into another, amnesic state. The musical fugue states a theme and then revoices it contrapuntally. Evenson's stories take the psychological meaning ("I had, Bentham claimed, fallen into a sort of fugue state, in which the world moved past me more and more rapidly, a kind of blur englobing me at every instant. And yet he had never, so he confided to Arnaud, felt either disoriented or confused. Yes, admittedly, during this period he had no clear idea of his own name. . . ." -- from the title story), and over the course of nineteen variations play with and examine the theme in various voices, voices disjunct from themselves as early as the first sentence of the story:

"Years later, she was still calling her sister, trying to understand what exactly had happened."

"For some days now, I have felt myself to be pursued by my second ex-wife."

"There came a certain point, in his speech, in his confrontation with others, in his smattering with the world, that Hecker realized something was wrong"

"I have been ordered to write an honest accounting of how I became a Midwestern Jesus and the subsequent disastrous events thereby accruing, events for which, I am willing to admit, I am at least partly to blame."

"In the end, suffering and not knowing what else to do, I left her abruptly and without warning, taking only the clothes on my back."

"I'd read once, in what book I no longer recall, a phrase that for no apparent reason came to haunt me."

"In retrospect, it was easy for her to see it had been a mistake to have sex with a mime."

"Clearly the method of elucidation I employed in my report did not satisfy the administration, and thus I am at a loss as to know how to proceed."

"Late in the year, during a trip to the Tyrol, the sky so gray throughout the day that he felt himself to be living in a perpetual twilight, Bauer lost confidence in his ability to work with plaster."

"It was a freak accident, a wire snapping off the load and whipping back to slash across his face, breaking his nose, tearing open both his eyes."

"On the night of 12 October, I was compelled for reasons I still find quite difficult to explain to kill one Alfons Kuylers, esteemed dealer in imported goods of a specialty nature, my mentor, my master in the art of philosophical paradox, my tutor in all things theological."

"Toward evening, well before Traub expected it, came a notable transformation in the face."

Traub and Bauer are characters in a similar story. Several of the stories are set in post-apocalyptic times. The loss of language or family or resemblance ("He no longer resembled me") is common to all the stories. In short, voices reporting from fugue states make up a literary fugue the likes of which I have never read or heard.

Art by Zak Sally, including an illustration for each story and a full graphic "illustration"/depiction/visual thinking of the story "Dread," add another eyevoice to the polyphony.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Conundrum, Quandary, and Paradox

This week Lyn and I were in Breckenridge, Colorado for a reunion of her family. One day several of us climbed Quandary Peak, 14,265 feet and just across the Blue River from where we were staying. As my photo shows, we weren't the only ones on the peak that day.

The outing reminded me of a climb my son Ben reported a couple of years ago, another Colorado mountain with a philosophical name: Conundrum Peak. When I looked it up on the internet, I found the following photo and description:

Located near Aspen, CO, USA, Conundrum Peak reaches 14,060 feet, however, it is not an "official" CO 14ers since it does not rise the magic 300 feet above the connecting saddle with Castle. Subpeak or not, it is a worthwhile climb in its own right and can easily be done together with Castle Peak.

I figured that I might now have bragging rights. 

More importantly, Ben's climb of Conundrum led to an exchange of emails between us that we called "The Father/Son Conundrum." Perhaps we can initiate a second volume now, something like "Qualifying Our Quandaries," to be followed by a third volume, also named after a Colorado place: "The Purpose of Paradox."

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Progress on the Barbed-Wire Article

The University of Wyoming has a collection of materials from late-nineteenth century advertising of the new invention that so changed the American West. Two of my favorites, found yesterday, are these cards from Jacob Haish. The first promises that Haish's wire will protect even the forbidden fruit of Eden (the fruit of the tree, the young girl, the exotic animals?).

The second features a well-dressed woman on the back of Haish's "cock of the rock" racing wire and stretchers to the farmer.

Finally, proof of the need for barbed wire, given the railroads now criss-crossing the West. The Wyoming Stockmens Association kept a big book in which it listed each cow killed by a train, several dozen every month. Barbed-wire fences were the answer.

Although not the perfect answer according to this account in the 1882 Daily News of Denver:

There is work for the Humane Society among farmers and other people building long fences and using “barbed wire.” In fact, it would be a noble work if the society could prevail upon the Legislature to pass a law prohibiting the erection of “barbed wire” fences. In this part of the country, and doubtless in other farming districts, a large majority of the fences around farms, pastures, etc., are built of “barbed wire,” which is strong, twisted wire, with sharp-pointed teeth or barbs wove in the wire three or four inches apart. Scarcely a day passes but one can hear of the death or fatal injury of a cow, calf, horse or colt which has run into the fence (which cannot be seen far away), and so cuts its head and body as to result seriously and often fatally, and it is not seldom that valuable blooded stock is caught in the barbs of these terrible fences and cut literally to pieces.  The foregoing is brought out by a sickening sight that met the eyes of passengers on the accommodation train between Collins and Loveland, yesterday morning.  A herd of milk cows was feeding along the line of the railroad track, and as the train came rolling along a number of the cows started to cross the track.  The engineer blew his whistle loud and shrill, and the frightened cows began to run in every direction.  One unfortunate ran headlong into a wire fence near the track and jumped head and fore legs through the fence and there hung on the sharp barbs, and as the rear car passed by the passengers saw the brute hanging there on the sharp barbs kicking and bellowing, the piercing instruments sawing and cutting into her body deeper and deeper as she struggled for liberty.  If the man who built the fence had a heart, not as hard as stone, and could have seen that terrible butchering, he would have solemnly sworn never again to build a barbed wire fence.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Barbed Wire Road Trip

Lyn and I have been working on our joint project, an interdisciplinary look at barbed wire in three contemporary literary works and at the nineteenth- and twentieth-century origins for the literary usage. She's mostly the expert on historical research, and I'm mostly responsible for the literary aspects. But it took both of us to drive through west-central Utah and east-central Nevada the last couple of days in search of images and ideas for the paper.

Near Oak City, Utah, just east of Delta, we found the "Fool Creek Flat" sign, welded together out of steel pipe, steel chain, cut steel plate, and steel barbed wire. It rises up next to the barbed-wire fence that is ubiquitous in the west, and that, in this case, has gathered a second rank of defense -- a knee-high layer of thorny tumbleweed (my legs will bear the scratches for the next week).

The sign signifies, at least as we read it, a Western cowboy toughness that tends to the scratchy.

If you're going to graze cattle and horses over wide swatches of ground, there's no real option but barbed wire. And if you're going to have roads through the country, the Nevada Department of Transportation will have to line them with barbed wire.

One of the benefits of research that requires traveling is that there are unexpected sights. After a long, wet, cool spring, the high mountain valleys east of Ely, Nevada, are brilliant with yellow composites and blue lupine and larkspur tucked in and around the sagebrush.

It's not easy to keep a wire fence taut, but you can tighten it by inserting a lever between two strands of the wire and twisting. A steel come-along helps with the dangly gate.

A barbed wire fence can also function as a gallery, as it does here at "Major's Place" on Highway 6 between Ely and Great Basin National Park. The fence flaunts a row of deer and pronghorn antlers, with the bighorn sheep skull in the center. Although we're trying to make sense of the disturbing practice of displaying killed coyotes on fences, this array at Major's Place seems at least partially an aesthetic exercise, and not just a statement of violent power.