Stochastic Bookmark

abstruse unfinished commentary

about correspondence


Box Review

B.S.Johnson, The Unfortunates

I do not ordinarily essay book reviews here, but I'll make an exception for this; a journalistic approach is wholly appropriate to what the backmatter describes: "A sportswriter, sent to a Midlands town on a weekly assignment, finds himself confronted by ghosts from the past when he disembarks at the railway station. Memories of one of his best, most trusted friends, a tragically young victim of cancer, begin to flood through his mind as he attempts to go about the routine business of reporting a soccer match." Literary License supplies a summary of the whole package, the unconventional 'book in a box', with chapters presented unbound, to be read in random order between the first and the last. This being Stochastic Bookmark, how could I not review it?

But I'll go further than that. Just as B.S. breaks the back of the book (as if the requirement that books must be orderly is binding), I'll break the rules of book-reviewing in telling you how to read it.

The Unfortunates should be read in one sitting, but not in one chair, or even room. This can be accomplished by interspersing the reading with mundane household tasks (laundry, dishwashing), snacks, and other interruptions of ideally less than a quarter hour. Children may also be found useful in this regard. And smoke 'em if you got 'em, particularly if you have a room set aside for the purpose. (And should you occupy a studio apartment, just stroll among other reading venues.) But nothing that otherwise engages the intellect, not even newspapers or magazines, in fact especially not those, nor the internets.

Why? Pretty much for the same reason that B.S. wanted the chapter order indeterminate. It is not a gimmick, though that's what brings wider attention; nor is it an authorial abdication (but thanks Scott for prompting me to, um, order my thoughts). It is not that the story itself is without order, it is that there are many such orders, none of which are privileged. The process of recalling things is being reproduced, memories not determined by a narrative line but by a network of associations. It's evident that some segments fit into a chronological order, but even then there are even many such timelines (extending even to architecture). All these alternative orderings would be eclipsed by any canonical sequencing, and readers would derive meaning from supposed structure where there is only contingency. Even remembering how these memories re-emerged is a piecemeal process. B.S. requires of himself an absolute fidelity in recording this, and also makes demands upon the reader, to respect the interleavings, no, interweavings of these various threads, the interdependencies that he has embedded, to remember what has gone before. While rich enough to give play to many strands, the text is short enough to hold, yes, in memory, until complete (a more difficult task for its author).

What shall I say of these many strands? Nothing; that would be giving the game away. But friendship entails a lot.

(the above was written while between lawn and garden)



Rumormongers have hypocritically insinuated that I make use of cheap irony. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I employ only the finest quality of irony, procured at great expense, its like not to be had discounted. In fact, I do not entrust supply to outside provisioners, but participate at every stage of manufacture, from the selection of raw material (unalloyed, never scrap) through its refinement—forged under sublime pressure, even tempered, under controlled heat, by a process of my own invention. Despite all due precaution, irony can become corrupted, so the results of all this effort may well never see the light of day. Only the most resilient irony, without discernable imperfection, is suitable to any proper craft.

Nor do I use it sparingly. To be effective, irony must be thickly applied, preferably in many layers, and meticulously worked in to its foundation so as to become integral to the final product. Those who speak of corrosive irony are really attesting to deficiencies of material or workmanship. It's often forgotten that the first function of irony is literally to protect the underlying matter. This has been obscured by the success of irony as a decorative element.

The importance of presentation must not be denied. Raw irony is unattractive—dull and base, it sends the wrong message. This should not be confused with the pure, simple affect achieved by the so-called Socratic method, made to seem rudimentary through its miminal, flat finish. Irony can also be polished to a high gloss, though usually augmented by a thin adherent coating to maintain its surface integrity.

For more ornate treatments, the devil is in the details: to assume a pleasing shape, the substance must be respected, even as it is moulded, but irony is no less versatile for all that. Whether chiseled to a fine edge or otherwise carved, or etched with acid, it readily accepts a variety of designs. But the key to superior irony is texture. Smooth, stippled, sawtoothed, or scored, it is essential to compensate for the inconstant densities of the material, lest the result leave a motley or clouded appearance. Superficial asperity can be enhanced with a dry wash, or light varnish—heavier treatments tend to mask the desired impression.

The display setting should be chosen to show the finished product to its best advantage. Shifts in perspective and lighting angles can produce dramatic effects in the denouement. Understatement may have its virtues, but flirts with the possibility that finer aspects of the irony will be overshadowed. Hidden irony may elicit a shock of recognition, but this is transient, and better saved for those times that occasion truly demands.

Whatever the current fashion may be, mock irony is to be assiduously avoided as a breach of taste. Its defects become apparent even under cursory examination, to say nothing of the sceptical eye of the connoisseur. It deceives no one.

I trust that this demonstrates my approach to irony is not to be gainsaid. I take irony very seriously indeed. And when I say that, I mean it.

x-post facto: now reappearing at Spinozablue


de pêche mode

When Keats came upon him, Chapman was subjecting the piece of fruit in his hand to intense scrutiny.

"What is the difficulty?" he asked.

Chapman replied, "This seems ripe and luscious enough, and the blush is just right, but I expected the fuzz to cover it evenly. Here, along the cleft, there doesn't seem to be any. I have my doubts about partaking of any fruit which exhibits a tonsure."

"You're committing a synecdoche," Keats remarked, "in taking the part for the hole."

Chapman glared at him.

"Come now," Keats rejoined, "it's only a vigorous peach."

(and for dessert ... an update 9.7: Boston Review's Roger Boylan's Flann O'Brien [via Literary Saloon]: shorter version: "Then felt I like some watcher of the skies / when a new planet swims into his ken")


Family Business

So, you think I'd resort to retailing startling revelations of a personal nature? Not part of my upbringing. Instead, I'll plug the gap between what this blog was and will be with an interludic infomercial about one of my favorite places, which not unrelatedly is in keeping with accommodating family business.

I mentioned Michigan as waystation in comments to my prior post; as such, it splits in two parts, not unlike the state. But one of them, Mackinac Island, nestles between the peninsulas, and between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan. It is an exceptional place, off the beaten track (but then so am I, and hey, you're reading this), though it wasn't always: in colonial times, it was a fur trading center (where John Jacob Astor later got his start) and fort (contested in the War of 1812), later, a Gilded Age retreat for Chicago and Detroit fortunes; much of this history has been preserved. But the mode of preservation I appreciate most is the state park (originally national, 2nd one, after Yellowstone), which takes up 3 of the nearly 4 square miles of the island. No motorized (non-emergency) vehicles are permitted on the island, ringed by the nation's only "Motorless State Highway"; it's horses (a different sort of carriage trade) or bicycles if you're not walking. Or rambling, for which the park is ideal, naturally diverse, with well-maintained trails (bridle and bike paths too), not for serious trekkers. My favorite route [map, pdf] is up the hill to the East Bluff cottages, away from town to Robinson's Folly, then along the bluff past Arch Rock, cutting over to Sugar Loaf and up to Point Lookout, then back towards town via Fort Holmes (also excellent for stargazing), ending up at Anne's Tablet (commemorating Constance Fenimore Woolson, whose bestseller Anne was set on Mackinac), with the best view of the town and the straits outside Fort Mackinac. Only a tiny proportion of visitors to the island penetrate even this far.

My own history on Mackinac goes back to the 70's, when my father's hobby of amateur restoration, with limited means and less limited sweat equity (I have brothers), was satiated by rearranging a house on the island from condemnation to commendation. In the 80's it became one of the first bed & breakfasts on the many-hotelled island, and these days my brother's family runs it: check it out: next to Ste Anne's (no relation to above) Church, "a short but welcome 3 blocks from the bustling 1800's downtown", period furnishings (some say my sentence structure could use that; but I ramble), friendly attention, and economical (the brother's other gig is teaching AP Economics). Reservations: (906) 847-6244.