AUGUST 29, 2013
MY FAVORITE BOOKS TEACH me how to think, or how to stop thinking; they encourage me to adopt a more permissive, openhearted, curious relation to the mind’s taxations. Matias Viegener’s 2500 Random Things About Me Too is such a book; it kindly provides a rest cure for my linguistic apparatus — the brain’s word-machine, a system of weights and measures, of pulleys and levers, that frequently experiences shutdown. Reading Viegener, I hope to learn from his authorial equanimity, the simplicity and tact of saying only the things that matter, whether or not they strike the scrupulous, monitoring consciousness as merely random.
2500 Random Things About Me Too, originally composed on Facebook, consists of 100 lists, 25 supposedly random items in each bouquet; “random” is a term that Viegener gently interrogates during the course of this autobiographical recitation, which shuns the dungeon of “memoir,” a zone deemed sentimental because of its jejune sequentiality.
Viegener didn’t want to write a memoir. He didn’t set out to write a book at all. He wrote a list of 25 items. And then he wrote another. “Adorable” is not a word that critics usually employ, but I want to use it to describe Viegener’s tone, subject, and method, with the following three-sentence episode as adorability’s quintessence: “I would play Anastasia with our cat, Blackie. She’d be the baby princess, wrapped tightly in a blanket. I’d be the grand duchess, trying to smuggle her out of Russia (my room) so the Bolsheviks would not kill her.” Each narrative nugget in this book — 2500 bon-bons — is a petite Anastasia, and Viegener (the grand-duchess narrator) has the responsibility of rescuing the baby princesses, a horde.
Toward his past, Viegener assumes a stance of forgiveness, of curiosity; a stance, like a curator’s, of fond husbandry, with an eye toward precise arrangement. His book confides, without lachrymose padding; he gives us confession without phlegm, without continuity. Parataxis — which my helpful dictionary defines as “the placing of clauses or phrases one after another without coordinating or subordinating connectives” — allows him to perform autobiography untrammeled by identity’s restrictions. The freedoms that “language” writing brought to contemporary literature have allowed Viegener to write autobiography with empirical clarity, a propositional, investigative, sight-cleansed freshness. The book’s paratactic soul is, like Joe Brainard’s, charm-filled, but also as rigorous as Pascal’s, Wittgenstein’s, or Lichtenberg’s — those men of numbers, avoidances, and winnowings. Viegener has a gin-clear candor (“I like the words preternatural, pellucid, and limpid, and the phrase gin clear”), combined with a dowser’s instinct for where the water lies.
The most moving line in the book: “I’d destroy every conceptual art piece on earth to spend an afternoon with my mother again.” Viegener, in that sentence, sides with life against art; he sides with things (rocks, bodies, fruit) as opposed to concepts. Viegener’s work has roots in conceptual art, but he is also a practical artist, a lover of the world, a man lodged in actual encounters, actual fruit fallen on the ground. (Fallen Fruit, an art collective formed in 2004 by Viegener, David Burns, and Austin Young, has worked — according to their website — “with fruit as a material or medium” and has sought to “imagine fruit as a lens through which to see the world.”) The fruit that Viegener seeks isn’t stolen, like Saint Augustine’s, but is available by the divine right of usufruct; usufruct, like Keats’s “blushful Hippocrene,” opens the coffers of memory for Viegener, who enshrines the found treasure in tight sentences. I could compare his formal corpuscle (stanza) of 25 to the blessed coterie of 36 souls who will save the world (“When I was a kid I read about the Lamed Vavniks, 36 righteous people on whom the world depends — but we don’t know who they are”); or to the sonnet’s healing constraint, an S/M contract, of 14; but a more logical comparison would be to the psychoanalytic hour, the 50-minute slice, Lacan’s tranche.
Viegener’s prose is delicate, balletic, with Artaud’s wildness, the Weltschmerz of Kafka’s Blue Octavo Notebook, and a Les Six lightheartedness — Poulenc, Satie, Auric, Milhaud and their friends stopped caring about clumsy solidities, and grew attached instead to moveable parts, playful assemblages, a music without fat; reading Viegener, I hear the lucidity of Milhaud’s gin-clear bitonality, two unbridgeable harmonies played simultaneously. “Some of my troubles in life come from having been a blond child in a Latin American country. My mother said women would run across lanes of traffic just to touch my hair. I think she liked that.” Viegener was a bitonal child, a Les Six child, transplanted, like Milhaud, and blessed as a result with a lifelong case of fizzy jouissance. Viegener doesn’t brag about having been a blond child; in fact, he locates it as a source of perpetual trouble — but his world-ache, his Weltschmerz (“The best untranslatable German word I know is Weltschmerz, not Zeitgeist, which is overused”) never festers.
How to explain the cauterization effect of the “random thing” numbered and isolated on the page except to observe that the germ-cell, the monadic note of the observed “thing,” stops exactly at its own threshold, and never violates the atmosphere by swelling into an unwanted narrative? “Once I saw Dolly Parton in a restaurant, Patina. She sat behind me; as soon as I knew she was there, I could feel her vibrations through my chair.” Viegener may not be crazy about Dolly Parton, but he loves the observed fact — the remembered or noted fact — of her nearness. This Dolly Parton observation is number 22; number 23, in this sequence, is “She’s tiny.” Tiny, too, is the sentence in which her tininess appears. About smallness, Viegener makes no judgment.
He calls these facts “random things”; most readers will probably take him at his word, and, although enjoying the things, will presume that they are “random” and merely “things” (rather than propositions, immensities, epiphanies, epitaphs, epigrams, formulae, commandments, equations, codes, poems, fossils). I salute the carefree humility of the two words “random” and “thing,” but I want to call attention to his investigation’s hidden immensity, and to suggest that the hope for literature’s happy futurity might involve a practice, like Viegener’s, of mentioning only the observations that matter, stopping immediately afterward, and waiting to speak until the next catalyst for speech arises. I prefer poetry to prose because I trust a poet to include only the words and ideas that count. I will call Viegener’s book poetry, not because it needs the word “poetry” affixed to it like a bad smell, but because his enunciation’s tempo makes as large an impression as his materials. We sense therefore the presence of an argument, an argument practiced, a plea for a literature alert to its scene of arrival, to the exact manner and durational contours of how the words, like time bombs, present themselves to our apprehending consciousness.
Like “random,” or “thing,” the word “about” is a trickster’s misnomer. Because the book’s argument is prosodic, its subject is the process of memory growing rock-like in the mind and in the articulating mouth. The book is not “about” Matias. His remembered life provides the material, just as Austria provides the material for The Sound of Music. But we do not say that The Sound of Music is about Austria. Nor do we say that Einstein’s relativity theory is about Einstein, or that a drawing by Paul Klee is about paper or about ink. Viegener questions the tyrannical reign of “about,” the bane of any serious (or playful) writer’s existence — the despotic insistence that language is about its subjects, or that literature’s districts can be zoned. 2500 Random Things About Me Too is about twosomes, the me becoming a you (tu, two) — twinnings, the wished-for twinning implied by any speech act, especially a Facebook-style speech act aimed outward toward “friends” who are or are not friends and who may or may not be there listening, a Facebook-haunted speech act that makes theater of its own loneliness. Literature has never been lonelier, spookier than today, and maybe has never been more dead (admittedly, I wasn’t around to witness the birth of The Canterbury Tales); the fact that Viegener’s book appears as book — as an idiosyncratically fashioned, independently produced, physically distributed, material object — may be this performance’s most uncanny and heartbreaking aspect.
To Viegener, nothing seems to matter more than stones — solidities, memorials, condensations that are homologies for the no longer sentient body, or for the living body (his, mine, yours) that contains pockets of insentience, of schistose muteness, like the uncanny “rocks, and stones, and trees” that roll around in Wordsworth’s “A Slumber did my Spirit Seal,” or the comforting rocks — “They’re strong as rocks” — that, in Frank O’Hara’s opinion, “still makes a poem a surprise.” Viegener tells us that the only souvenirs he collects on trips are rocks, and the book ends eloquently with a dying woman’s request to know a phantom stone’s location:
Two years ago, I sat with my 95-year-old aunt in the hospital. She was very sick, and delirious. She told us something was missing. First we thought she said Schwein, pig, a missing pig, but then she said no, Stein, the stone, where was the stone? She told us she wanted the stone, but we told her it was already there, under the table, and that was enough for her. Then she stopped asking for it.
The book stops there, too. And it proposes that we, readers, might also feel authorized to stop in the midst of any activity we find no longer worth pursuing. Stop asking. Stop writing. Stop elaborating. Rest. Go to sleep. Die. Turn away from language. Viegener executes, 2500 times, this refusal of literature, this choice to adopt a stone’s secure placement, even if the stone is fictional.
He writes: “I have a smell on my wrist right now. I can’t describe it except in a word, one word: Araby.” Each sentence in this book sets up specific pools of association, which then die down, like that 95-year-old aunt’s request for a stone. The ripples stop. We don’t ask, “Why Araby?” We think of James Joyce’s story, perhaps, but then the aroma of Viegener’s sentence, and its accompanying sensations, evaporates; to make sense of 2500 Random Things we would need to investigate the word “Araby” and the personality of the man who has a “smell” on his wrist and feels compelled to import that smell directly (without fuss) into literature. This aroma, without history or motive, simply arises at the moment prior to Viegener’s decision to articulate it (“I have a smell on my wrist right now”). The crucial phrase is “right now,” a “right now” that will end and that will produce, in the reading mind, a silent pool, an eddying, or a place where an echo might lodge.
Prosody is the most remarkable thing about 2500 Random Things, and “prose prosody” is a phenomenon difficult to measure or describe, except by pointing to the works of Woolf, Joyce, Proust, Mallarmé, Valéry (Carnets), David Markson, Lydia Davis, Aaron Kunin (Grace Period), and others. Prose prosody, of the kind that Viegener practices, permits maximum emptiness and interrogation to enter the sentence’s envelope. As in Joe Brainard’s I Remember, Viegener’s paratactic method introduces complexity not through overt thorniness of statement, but through counter-intuitive juxtaposition and through acts of reticence, a reluctance to develop. In Viegener’s work, as in Brainard’s, intricacies live between the sentence’s crevices, as hunches, inferences, clouds.
To take, somewhat at random, four contiguous phrase-morsels:
22 Sachsenhausen and Auschwitz prove that nothing is really random, and that actually many things may be part of an evil plan.
23 When grapefruits are in season, I tend to eat one every day.
24 I teach a class on pornography in which we do not look at any images, only pornographic texts.
25 Treacle is one of my favorite words.
Viegener respects his reader enough not to explain why the movement from Auschwitz to grapefruit is permissible, why the movement from grapefruit to porn is logical, and why “treacle” (the delight he takes in the word) tonally contains the opposites at play here, the medley of atrocities, obscenities, pleasures — all mentioned lightly, without pedantry or filler, just placed literally down on the page. The profundity of the supposed “randomness” exists less in the leaps between individual “things” than in the refusal to move beyond the declarative, the seemingly factual, and into a style that circles, dives, amplifies, or dilates. This lightness of tone introduces a plainspokenness, a climate of the commensensical, the copacetic, the comfortable, that is Californian, but also Benjaminian (Walter Benjamin, were history kinder to him, might have had a happy third act in Hollywood, playing tennis with Arnold Schoenberg) — Benjaminian because the emotions are kept at bay, within the tight corral (think Bonanza) of the single aphoristic sentence, the clause that has signed a nonproliferation treaty. Like a pacifist, Benjamin’s and Viegener’s sentences retain refusenik loneliness.
I use the clumsy (pedantic?) word “prosody” because I want to give prose the credit it deserves for having a measure and for its intelligence residing in tempo, in pace of delivery. Viegener sets up a paradigm for a species of literature that might say the thing it needs to say and then nothing more, a literature that might utter the thing, stop, remain in the “stopped” realm for a long time, and then reluctantly resume; years ago, I described this literary mode as the “poetics of indifference” (with Jean Rhys as exhibit number one), but now I’d seek a term other than “indifference”; Viegener’s language suggests a practice anesthetized, olympian, old-fashioned, and restful, as if following the commandment of Wordsworth’s “emotion recollected in tranquility.” Parataxis, like a line- or stanza break, gives rest cure within the work itself, as if the respite offered by yoga’s corpse pose could exist within literature, too.
Viegener’s work is death-haunted (Kathy Acker, his mother, and his dog — these three mortalities shape and deepen his narrative); death occurs in his prose’s corpse-pose mode, its paratactic, conceptually driven repetition of the holy 25, like the righteous 36 (the Lamed Vavniks) appearing out of nowhere. You never know who will be the righteous 36 who will save the world, and you never know which of Viegener’s propositions will bestow enlightenment.
Viegener writes about sex with an unanxious, vulcanized lightness, like a Whitmanic (body-electric) dithyramb reincarnated as a fortune cookie; though curious about queerness’s intellectual dimension, Viegener doesn’t overplay the homo card. Cruising is paratactic, as Renaud Camus long ago demonstrated in his book Tricks. Tricks, unconnected, are a Netflix queue. (The Birds doesn’t lead to Interiors; Interiors doesn’t lead to Body Double.) Parataxis allows Viegener to do justice to sex’s randomness, but also to the sublimity of this particular guy landing right here in my lap; parataxis allows Viegener to push a “sex” argument that is more relaxed and satori-filled than anything Foucault could have imagined — a body-without-organs weightlessness, befitting a former protégé of the great Sylvère Lotringer, whose polysexuality issue of Semiotext(e) excited Viegener in days of yore (“Sylvère Lotringer was so sexy when I was in college. He always wore a motorcycle jacket and had a shaved head, like the biker on the polysexuality cover”). 2500 Random Things captures the excitement of that time, when there seemed to be (like apples in a tragically complicated orchard) sex everywhere, theory everywhere, death everywhere.
In this cut-up bildungsroman we meet Viegener the polyglot cosmopolite (Germany, Argentina, New York, Los Angeles) who drives with Acker to Mexico (twice he tells the magnificent anecdote of Kathy Acker peeing and saying “Oh the sun feels so good on my pussy!”); we met a wistful cosmopolite whose mother was a photographer and whose father wanted to be an architect but got kicked out of school (a Jew in Germany) and became a jewelry designer in Argentina instead; we meet a happy-go-lucky introvert who cares about fruit and calls himself a “fruit person.” Matias, with his protean susceptibilities and his avoidance of masks, becomes in this chronicle a true hero, like the narrator of Eileen Myles’s works. Matias — as a character in his own book, the “I” who is the subject of the enunciation — achieves a self-conscious and radiant centrality. And, like Brainard’s “I,” Viegener’s “I” speaks from a position of sexual confidence wily enough to incorporate a measure of shyness. He combines physical bravado and bashful reticence; like any witness I’d trust to give worthwhile testimony about the inner life’s complications, Viegener’s remembering and narrating “I” seems to have a lifelong case of hurt feelings.
The hurt doesn’t seem to stem from childhood’s usual doldrums; the hurt is sourceless, and therefore nearly mystical. In fact, Viegener’s parents come across as heroically interesting and enviably countercultural. (Matias sometimes sounds like the sweet-tempered scion of Herbert Marcuse and Lotte Lenya.) For example: “For a time when I was in college, my mother was very interested in the question of prostitution. Once she and my father were in Times Square and they met a prostitute and took her to dinner and talked to her.” Ethnographic interview? Viegener’s childhood — or his relation to his parents — seems to have offered him maximum protection, like a 50 SPF sunscreen, against the toxic rays of American ordinariness.
Viegener writes: “One reason I feel like I grew up in another century is that in my early years I mostly heard classical music.” There’s something paradoxically 19th century about ultra-contemporary Viegener: am I thinking of his Nietzschean penchant for sabered speech? Or his language’s well-mannered, triste courtliness? Is reticence a 19th century characteristic? “I remember my mother once said to me: we’re not German, we’re European.” I’ll identify Matias as a European, too, sonata-shadowed, dwelling inside a fragment of Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, like a karaoke version of a Kleist or Hofmannsthal character, a smiling puppet or puppeteer. (This paragraph was supposed to be my transference paragraph, but it has become my Schumann paragraph.)
Here is Viegener, wise as a shaman, on the thorny question of queer desire:
1 When we desire someone, do we desire to have them or to be them? That’s always an interesting question, maybe more so for gay people.
2 It’s a question that come up today in my Queer Books class. But it’s a question that won’t go away either. And not just for gay people.
3 There are a whole set of my mother’s recipes that I lost. Actually I never wrote them down.
Anyone who takes to heart the experience of 2500 Random Things becomes a Matias (me too), uttering statements confident about their place in the world, tentative in their fragmentariness, sanguine in their post-anxiety certainty that they deserve to be written down and circulated. I want to be Matias observing himself, and discovering the wherewithal — the motivation, the energy — to write this book, to behold its piecemeal assembly.
Later, his mood changes. Sentence to sentence, the temperature shifts. “I am so tired of making lists I could cry. I’m tired of trying to get people’s attention. I just want to shut up and go to sleep.” Literature induces sleep, requires sleep, deprives one of sleep, and relies on sleep’s oneiric apparitions. Any sentence wants someone’s attention. Or does it? However Facebook-engendered Viegener’s sentences may in reality have been, are they not principled in their aloneness, their stoic refusal to pander? “I once saw Alanis Morissette naked at Esalen.” Is that a sentence that tries to get someone’s attention? Or is it a sentence that quietly records a private moment of shock, and exists without theatrics, without props? One adjective: “naked.” One adverb: “once.” The rest is silence. “My therapist taught me the term ‘suicidal ideation.’ It’s not when you are suicidal but when suicide becomes something that occurs to you, one option among others.” I’ve never been seriously suicidal, but I am often subject to suicidal ideation; I feel its allure, its “sticky pearls,” as Sylvia Plath put it. Suicidal ideation — its sticky pearls — are built into Viegener’s project, its staged hope for an audience (for “friends,” audition, reception, belonging), but also its gestures of tending — of rescue — toward the fallen fruit, the quince and kumquat of each aperçu, each line indeed a plum.
2500 Random Things About Me Too’s publisher, Les Figues, is an experimental press; Viegener is an artist and writer with experimental affiliations (though he wonders, in an endearingly self-doubting moment, “Am I experimental enough?”). Any artist is experimental. You don’t call Wade Guyton an “experimental painter,” but you might feel compelled to call Charles Bernstein an “experimental poet.” Viegener’s work as visual and performance artist you wouldn’t need to qualify with the adjective “experimental,” but what is the invisible threshold that literature must cross before it gets counted as experimental? Kevin Killian wrote the introduction to 2500 Random Things. Is Killian experimental? He’s New Narrative, queer, charming, funny, “accessible” — do those characteristics make him less experimental? Andy Fitch’s recent book on Brainard (Pop Poetics) sagely makes the argument that Brainard’s methods — minimalist, procedural — were informed by contemporary theory and art practice, and that we need to revise our assumptions about “experimental” poetry to accommodate autobiographical (and charming) literature. Same goes for 2500 Random Things: the radical move it proposes is that we rethink “me,” or “me too,” that we rethink charm and friendliness and accessibility, that we stop frowning on the first-person pronoun, that we banish the words “memoir” and “autobiography” if they give us ants in our pants and prevent us from freely espousing.
“At the store, I noticed that watermelons have shrunk to the point of being called ‘personal melons.’” Classify that sentence as autobiography. Classify it as research notes for a project in linguistics or economics. Classify it as musings of a fruit person. Or don’t classify it. 2500 Random Things, opposed to categorization’s drive-by cruelties, resists classification on its own behalf, and on behalf of every other contemporary text. The clusters of 25 things, each a fruit basket, involve set theory, a theory of miscellany, a theory of congregation and sociability, a theory of kinship, and a practical statement on how an artist and writer can remain mobile, alert, interested, and capable of generating fresh thinking and excitement in others. “Something I noticed about the Language Poets is how they got trapped in their own apparatus. They kind of built this fast race car and then turned it into a hearse.” Viegener never turns his race car into anything other than a race car. And it’s a race car that runs against no other vehicle, a race car alone on its track, a race car that (like a hearse) includes funereal capabilities but that (like a convertible) lets in plenty of marine sunshine. “One last jump in the ocean today, alone and naked, off a rock with my eyes closed.” We see him on that rock. He is alone and naked, but he gives us words that we can use as binoculars to see him there, lyrically poised on a rock-edge, alone but beheld — a position of observed solitude that I’ll call Germanic (or European) mostly because it’s Wordsworthian, or Byronic, which is where I get my German romanticism: through a glass randomly. To use another unruly (and evasive?) metaphor: I drink German romanticism through any straw aphoristic enough to bend rather than break when I beg that it function as my syrinx. Reading, like listening, goes in two directions; when we read a book as generously sieve-like as Viegener’s, we feel invited to employ it as our own vocal cords. Do I sound top-heavy with cathexis, and therefore disqualified from clear speaking? Forgive me, Matias, and thank you for writing 2500 Random Things About Me Too.