‘Before we met,’ writes Maggie Nelson to her lover Harry Dodge, the addressee of The Argonauts, ‘I had spent a lifetime devoted to Wittgenstein’s idea that the inexpressible is contained – inexpressibly! – in the expressed.’ Nelson’s book, its intricate accretion of short philosophical observations, anecdote and commentary, belongs to a genre that we could call the piecemeal portrait. (Nelson herself might favour the word ‘prismatic’.) The apparent self-effacement of this indirect approach to autobiography is in line with modern sensibilities. As the smooth omniscience of the nineteenth century novelist gave way to the unreliable, fragmentary narratives of today, so the idea of straightforwardly ‘telling’ a life now feels at best staid, at worst existentially misguided. ‘The form is not “memoirs” but mémoires, fables from a time about a few people inside it,’ writes veteran-of-the-genre Adam Gopnik in The Stranger’s Gate. There’s a charming shrug here: oh, it’s not really about me, it’s just a bunch of stories I threw together. But of course part of the idea is that ‘me’ will emerge anyway. Join the dots. Or rather, intuit the inexpressible shape lurking in the interstices.
Other recent examples include Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Autumn, and now the poet Brian Blanchfield’s first book of prose, Proxies. We locate the author by a process of triangulation. ‘Is there a mythology of the mythologist? Doubtless there is, and the reader will soon see for himself where I stand,’ writes Barthes, a common ancestor, in his preface to the 1957 edition of Mythologies. ‘I’ve kept the essays in the order I wrote them, more or less’ – that shrug again, in Blanchfield’s preface to Proxies, modestly titled ‘[A Note]’. He goes on: ‘Whatever development can be tracked may correspond to what might be called a self.’ When Proxies was published in the US last year, its subtitle was ‘Essays Near Knowing [a reckoning]’. The UK edition calls itself ‘A Memoir in Twenty-Four Attempts’. Initially, at least, Blanchfield presses harder on the self-effacement pedal than Gopnik et al. But how does he measure up in other respects? Proxies is better than the Knausgaard (not difficult) but not as good as Gopnik or Nelson. (Nelson is a close friend of Blanchfield, referenced several times in the essays and also on the cover, where she claims to know of ‘no book like it, nor any recent book as thoroughly good, in art or in heart.’)
Attempts. Near Knowing. Self-effacement, yes, but also a reference to the formal constraint Blanchfield shares with Knausgaard (although Knausgaard is less explicit about it): to write entirely from inside the self. ‘I wrote these essays with the internet off,’ Blanchfield tells us in the preface. As a result, there are plenty of cheerful errors, corrected in an 18-page section at the back titled ‘Correction’. Discussing the Wallace Stevens poem ‘The Owl in the Sarcophagus’, Blanchfield confidently declares that ‘the owl is alone, in the sarcophagus, and alone in Stevens.’ In ‘Correction’, however, we read that ‘the word owl appears in five other poems by Wallace Stevens’. There is no numbering system for the errors and their corrections, so you have to wait until the end of the book, when presumably you’re meant to read them all at once. In fact, ‘Correction’ was also published separately, as an e-chapbook by Essay Press. It’s hard to imagine anyone enjoying it as a standalone work. Sample: ‘Dallas Green was the manager of the Philadelphia Phillies in 1981. His career managerial record was 454-478, a winning percentage of .487.’ Divorced from their referents, the footnotes make for dry reading. Meanwhile, the original errors fruitlessly destabilise the main text, because we know that stated facts, however banal, cannot be trusted as facts.
This bareback style is presumably intended to increase intimacy between writer and reader by risking the vulnerability of improvisation. In Autumn, Knausgaard is addressing his unborn daughter, riffing on such diverse subjects as badgers, labia and loneliness. Blanchfield’s starting points include sardines, Br’er Rabbit, the Locus Amoenus and frottage. At times both writers sound like floundering contestants on Just A Minute, clutching at whatever happens to land in their consciousness. ‘Little Professor is a children’s game with an owl as its logo, plastic and circular and orange like the Seventies. “The Owl in the Sarcophagus” is a poem by Wallace Stevens that I have read but cannot remember well, probably not much about either an owl or a sarcophagus, though in its title it draws the ready sensation of a fable or else a science fiction story.’
The Knausgaard, unhappily, rarely leaves this mode. But Blanchfield frequently reaps the rewards of automatic writing: the semi-conscious revelation of buried treasure. Hover your divining rod over dry ground for long enough and eventually something will spring up. In the preface, Blanchfield promises ‘to stay with the subject until it gives onto an area of personal uneasiness, a site of vulnerability, and keep unpacking from there.’ It is this determination that leads him to his best writing, about his childhood in North Carolina, and Brian Overby’s transition into Brian Blanchfield after his adoption by his stepfather Frank. Frank bullied Blanchfield’s mother. ‘The great disgrace of his life will have been his terrorism of the one devoted to him,’ Blanchfield tells us. ‘The lasting shame of mine was enduring it by detaching from it. I left when I was seventeen, five years into their marriage, and I visit as seldom as I can.’ That final admission, in the present tense, makes these essays truly brave: the sense that this is live material, that Blanchfield isn’t waiting for time to put safe distance between himself and, well, himself. Later in the book, Frank dies, giving rise to one of the collection’s most memorable passages, in the essay ‘On Dossiers’, which sees Blanchfield sorting out his stepfather’s impossible affairs and stumbling across a manila file marked ‘Brian Blanchfield.’ His stepfather and his Primitive Baptist mother reliably spur Blanchfield to the top of his game, as in ‘On Foot Washing’, with its description of the chronic wound on the sole of Frank’s right foot (he was a type 2 diabetic):
The aperture of his wound has varied from dime to half-dollar size and I have seen it three or four inches deep. Even then, it was frightfully clean, like a throat.
My mother cleans it, every evening, after dinner, after the dishes. She has a kit, a kind of carpet bag, with gloves and spray and brushes and ointments and individually wrapped antiseptic wipes. He lifts his heavy leg to the butcher block table in their kitchen, and her movements are quicker and rougher than you might imagine, though her concentration is intense. She wipes the gullet of it, and the rim, she gets it to granulate. After twenty-five years of marriage she knows this part of his body best. He hasn’t ever really seen it. Often, during, feeling nothing, he watches television.
This is Blanchfield at his best: telling it absolutely straight, which is not an easy thing to do, as Adam Gopnik also knows. Here is Gopnik’s description of a moment of breakthrough in his early career: ‘I wrote a sentence. It was my first true sentence…. It went, “I am a student at the Institute of Fine Arts, and I work part time at the Frick Art Reference Library.” It couldn’t have been simpler, could not have been inaner or more naïvely declarative. And yet I knew at once that, writing it, I had broken through, that in the simple accumulation of obviousness lay a path toward writing more potent than all the puns and poems I had written…. It was a truth that I glimpsed, and that escaped me. It escapes me still, as I pursue it, still.’ Yet both Strangers At the Gate and Proxies veer from the simple declarative to the indulgently ornate. In between those two states, for Blanchfield, is an analytical mode that can generate quasi-anthropological commentary. On Man Roulette (according to Tumblr, ‘the gay friendly free live webcam site for guys to interact cam to cam’): ‘What is different about Man Roulette is vantage, a kind of inherent third-person perspective on the both of you and your date. You get to see it all. An overburdened pair of blue brief and Guayaquil, a candy wrapper with funny Italian. You have to oversee it all. His reaction reading your remark, your impulse to get a reaction.’
But Blanchfield’s far extreme is problematic when compared to similarly overwrought passages in Gopnik. The issue is basic intelligibility. Interstices. I can’t hear the word without thinking of Samuel Johnson’s hilariously unhelpful dictionary definition of ‘a net’ as ‘a man-made object with interstitial vacuities’. A definition, you feel, that Blanchfield would be proud of. The quotations I’ve selected so far have all been easily comprehensible. But somewhere in the vicinity of every straight sentence is a fur ball waiting for you to choke on it. ‘I wrote these essays with the internet off.’ Fine. ‘I decided on a total suppression of recourse to other authoritative sources.’ Not quite so fine, and a harbinger of real trouble up ahead. Blanchfield’s lexicon includes ‘theretofore’, ‘wherein’, and ‘therein’, used apparently without irony. The ratio of good writing to expository dreadlock simply isn’t high enough. At times it feels like he’s just failing to make himself clear – as if a few crucial words are missing. (‘Remember the blubber-slathered knife Dillard recalls the Eskimo buries to the hilt to bleed the wolf dead?’) More irritating is a tendency to use words just outside their accepted definitions. In the essay ‘On Abstraction,’ Blanchfield meditates on how words acquire value. He imagines that a mystical spot by a river-bend might give rise to an abstract word like ‘fortune’ or ‘flux’ or ‘tingle’. Here is his unnecessarily opaque conclusion: ‘Eventually, far from knowledge of the bend of river [sic], one comes to host the visit of the word when it obtains.’
Throughout, there are more basic struggles with syntax and longer sentences, which often fail to land. This is Blanchfield waiting to receive condolences at Frank’s funeral:
Back in the visitation line that long evening, while I worked up something to offer back to each face facing mine, not ten feet from the corpse of my adoptive father of twenty-seven years, a consistent buzzing in my pants pocket was alerting me – I realized later, undressing for a third night in the bed where Frank last lay alive – to phonecalls and texts from a co-worker asking at Paul’s behest where in my office the tape recorder was.
This from a poet who describes his own work as ‘beholden most to the music of the sentence, the complex and resourceful sentence’. There is a fair amount of this sort of shameless self analysis: ‘Though less baffling the stronger I grow as a writer, my work is not especially welcoming to the uninitiated and one can feel excluded there by a somewhat nuanced consciousness of literary tradition.’ I didn’t quite know how to feel about this aspect of the book, and felt similarly uncertain about the moments when Blanchfield’s wounded ego is on proud display: ‘I just this week lost my appointment, such as it was, at the university’s Honors College, which is confusing in a year when I have had some, you know, real recognition as a writer, and success in the classroom.’
Blanchfield has promised us full disclosure, and he’s delivering on that promise. It’s there in the revelation of Frank’s wound and Blanchfield’s failure to visit his mother – which we commend because of the bravery involved in the admission. But what about that huffy ‘I have had some, you know, real recognition as a writer’? It’s difficult not to feel irritated by him and embarrassed for him – yet isn’t this simply part of the same remit, to bare all? My ambivalence wasn’t helped by Blanchfield’s decision to reprint the words ‘Permitting Shame, Error and Guilt, Myself the Single Source’ as a sub-heading to each of the 24 chapters. As he explains in the preface: ‘Clumsy as it may be, I claim as part of a personal sortilege a devotion to the words I had bannered across the top of each new developing piece, an invocation of sorts, a ritual. Permitting shame, error and guilt….’ When you read it for the first time, it seems like a pretty good standard to set oneself. But with repetition it becomes mantra, then superstition, then OCD-style neurosis. By the end you feel that Blanchfield is forcibly staking out territory for himself and declaring it a safe space. It doesn’t work like that. You have to earn it. Think back to that (faux-?) modest subtitle: ‘A Memoir in Twenty-Four Attempts’. Straight from the school of ‘it’s-the-taking-part-that-cou