A hearty congratulations to Robert Hinderliter, whose work we nominated for the 2011 Micro Award.
Robert Hinderliter – “A Thousand Fires”
“Starting down the loose dirt slope from the head of the railroad trestle steadying yourself on the rusted steel trusses,” Jim Meirose’s pocket-size collection of three short stories begins, the second person narrator dwelling on the details of the place where the ashes are scattered, the place where the memories are set: “There’s a spot down there you need to get to and you slide or half-fall down the slope to a gravel platform under the trestle by the water,” he writes, not so much, perhaps, painting a picture of a location as making clear, in the telling, how well-worn this location, and the travel down there, are to the narrator. This smoothed style—like a wood tool that, with enough years, has come to naturally fit its users hand—distinguishes this little book. In the introduction, Meirose makes clear the ways these stories are metaphors for the act of writing, but he does so, again, in such a personal tone, intimate, that it is not excessive information but, rather, a tiny and perfectly flavored amuse bouche to awaken the reader’s palate for the meal to follow. Its taste is at once pastoral and post-industrial, a celebration of life and a meditation on death: “At the head of the trestle the steel’s bolded into the concrete, the bolts each enter a star of rust; under the trestle you stand by the black water, the strong-smelling mud, the rubble and briars.”
A boy claims to listen, through a machine, to the voice of his dead mother, in one story, and in another, a woman works the counter of a fuel station on a highway slipped from most folks’ maps by the imposition of an interstate. The woman tries to sell “snack-sized pies in small foil pans on a tray in the hazy glass case at the register” to those few passersby who cross paths with her, but the piece isn’t just a study of contrasts between speed and ease, the new world and the lost, there’s something angrier, even if it is a simple and innocent anger, in the woman’s action—suffice to say, the pies aren’t precisely edible; they’re certainly not made out of fruit. There’s rebellion and humor in these pies and in these pieces of fiction, but there is a gaping sense of loss just under the trestle, just down the highway. As the boy with the machine says, dazed by revelry at the very idea of what it might be like, to talk to the dead, to have the past to experience again: “Thrill, goosebumps, the hot water in the tub, close eyes, Mother what do you have to say, Mother what would you have to say if you could really be here—” But it is just one voice, less young than before, speaking in the dark, one man skittering and sliding down the gravel banks to stand where there’s a better vantage for looking back at the past.
“I walked up St. Marks to Cooper Square through the slush and snow, catching the almost empty subway up to 57th. A man in pin stripes with an attaché case on his lap was reading a newspaper. The heading, Gonzo Journalist Thompson Kills Self, caught my eye. Fear and loathing leads to a bad end, in Las Vegas or anywhere else.” This is the narrative voice of Meet Me at the Met, a character named Clarence, a creative writing instructor with a novel coming out, left by his wife, estranged from his daughter, wishing he “were as skilled in navigating through the zodiacal adventures of my own destiny as Odysseus could through his,” or, at another point, wishing he “could rap like Tupac, or his deceased nemesis, the Notorious B.I.G. I take out my pen and notebook, hoping to slam a few power words onto the page, or at least to glean what’s irking me today.” Clarence is trite, self-important, and, as his constant attempts to drop names navigate the “zodiacal” straits of what he elsewhere calls “refined culture,” more than a little bit dumb. His stupidity finds expression in puffed-up bromides and, more unfortunately, in a vacuity of perception. He goes to the Metropolitan Museum because, he insists, “art rejuvenates. True art is embodied spirit; and the spirit never sleeps, but always burns on and on,” and, while there, he writes, and, in so doing, he manages to convey nothing like rejuvenation or spirit. Rather, what readers must endure is a great deal of writing about writing, on the level of:
I want to find a place to write.
I click my ballpoint pen, ready to reexamine my forgotten resolution.
I just want to write, and see where it leads me. It’s what I always tell my students in the creative writing classes: ‘Write, every chance you get. It’s a means of self discovery. The act of writing will lead you as much as you lead it.’
I will continue to write, because it’s what I must do, even if it is only in short, sporadic spurts, and even if I don’t fully know why.
I’m ready and alert, with not a clue of what to write. Everything about this project is vague; except for the existential notion that I want to uncover the reason behind my present condition and explore a segment of my life.
I cast my pen’s red line into the page-pool, letting my thoughts slowly reel out into the center of possibilities. I’m a fisher waiting for a bite.
No thoughts come. That’s ok. I’m used to it… I’m waiting to find out what’s on my mind.
I take my pen and go over the letters and numbers until the date stares boldly back at me.
Now I know what drove me to the Met with such inexorable force; why I had to write. It was more than an exercise in self-development. It was more than mere journaling (though it could serve as the groundwork for a memoir).
Indeed, things happen, and, at the Met, after coffee, he writes about them. Müller, who is identified in his bio as the author of a collection of “old and new poetry written mostly while traveling or drinking coffee,” makes his narrator a bit of a caffeine addict, not that there is any trace of tweak or rush in these pages, just lots of mentions of buying and drinking coffee. Among the things that concern him are traumatic memories (“I’m nailed to the spot by the pounding knowledge of a resurfaced episode—a wound, left to fester for years without the necessary attention. Memories tend to return in altered states, popping up at arcane, though seemingly random moments.”), a school scandal that nearly cost him his career, an acid attack against his girlfriend, his daughter’s eating disorder (about which his heartfelt response is “I felt stupid, ignorant, and helpless, though it was obvious that the popular images of women—as expressed in the media—had something to do with it. Moreover, my observation that girls who suffer from anorexia or bulimia often fail to live up to their potential had me worried.”), and, of course, his wife and why and how she left him. We do learn that she is a pretty perfect match for poor Clarence, however, as she, in a characteristic example of this book’s use of dialogue, explains how, exactly, she first consummated the lesbian affair that would lead to the ruin of her marriage: “It was terribly hot and we often lay half naked in her loft,” she says. “In our sleepy, steamy state we sometimes satisfied ourselves, a bit like in Otto Dix’s painting in the Neue Gallerie—you know the one—Dix’s Two Girls on the bed, masturbating. Then, one day we did it to one another, and, yeah….” Really? Is this how an ex-wife talks to her ex-husband, about this? And would she really use the artist’s last name twice in such a quick span of time?
It is impossible to have any sympathy for either of them, though the ex-wife is blessedly absent most of the time. Instead, we have to deal with Clarence—are trapped, frankly, in Clarence’s head. Faced with a long queue snaking outside the renovated MoMA, our narrator expresses his frustration, that he needs to see the new arrangement inside, has “a need to know, to give my two-penny bit on the Mecca of modern. Artspeak on the subject is flourishing in all the intellectual circles; and both my higher and nether nature is vying for the MoMAment to add my thoughts to the rest of them.” Or ducking into a room of Degas pieces, here’s our narrator smugly sighing that he needs to “find my medicinal dose of art for the day.” Oh, and there’s that moment when he vows “to do my share in the protection of refined culture throughout the world as expressed through the arts, sciences and religion—the trinity which, in its unity, will guarantee the survival of a civilized world based on loving human interrelationships.” This is what I mean, in part, by dumb: here is a book devoid of contemplation or thought but that bills itself, on every page, as some kind of contribution to, well, the literature of contemplation. And here straw-man narrator Clarence can’t shoulder all the blame. In a preface—seemingly written to warn readers off from the book to which it is attached—the author writes, “Through Clarence’s engaging and interacting with the museum’s treasures, the novel has almost become a companion book of sorts for those seeking to find an intimate and personal relationship to the visual arts.” Again: really? And why the “almost” and “of sorts”?
“I love words,” Clarence insists, “especially when I am distressed. They come flying, or well up like fishes from the depths. I’m obsessed by them. When I’m feeling down, I go for the dictionary instead of the bottle,” which is as close as we get to any example of this. Words, we’re told “need to be fed, taken out, talked to, put to work, enjoyed… Wards in the word infirmary are filled with ailing, wounded words,” but we don’t much sense, from this manuscript, of this supposed investment in the language. Instead, we get more of the narrator’s self-important prattle. Likewise, while the book is stitched around visits to an art museum, we get non-descript descriptions or mere passing mention of works of art. Tiny monochromatic pictures of artworks at the Met are included, but these only highlight the problem of how invisible these works of art are within the text. “Kiki Smiths’ intriguing Lilith,” is mentioned, for instance, at just that speed, on page 63; six pages later Clarence scribbles some notes about how a teacher leading a group of schoolchildren “missed a pedagogical moment” by now telling her class “an imaginative story of what she sees in the painting…. I’m reminded of the precocious little girl who was puzzled by naked Lilith, hanging upside down from the wall. Maybe we can only have a semblance of faith if we turn ourselves upside down and inside out,” he writes, “Modern life does that to us.” A photograph of Lilith, in situ, follows, but—really?—what kind of sense can the reader be expected to make from those lines. Other, of course, than that the narrator has never looked at this piece of art.
This disturbing lack of consideration—lack of, to use the author’s own terms, “engaging and interacting”—of individual pieces of art carries over into a lack of distinction between various artworks and various responses to them. As we’ve seen, there is an inchoate hope that religion, art, and science “will guarantee the survival of a civilized world based on loving human interrelationships,” which seems, especially in a novel chock-a-block with references to 9/11 a bit naïve. There are also juxtapositions that simply do not strike our earnest fool of a narrator, as when he realizes, “with a chuckle,” that a group of costumed children have “all succumbed to the charms of J. K. Rowling’s latest: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Dressed in the weird and bizarre outfits of their favorite characters, they sit transfixed and at one remove from reality. I’d quite forgotten about the midnight release parties held at thousands of bookstores throughout America and the world in honor of her fifth book, a tome of over eight hundred pages.” There is a small photo of a statue of Gertrude Stein below that, but, rest assured, our narrator has “quite forgotten” whether there is any difference between these two authors and their work. Both, after all, are part of that “trinity” which will save “human interrelationships,” which, surely, are things that involve lots of writing in notebooks in museums.
Not that what might be called politics, or history, doesn’t enter into the picture; it’s just that, as with all other pictures, Clarence can’t focus on the details. At the start of the invasion of Iraq, our narrator improvises what he takes to be an Islamic prayer ritual, prostrating himself before a mihrab in the Asian Art Wing. When confronted by a security guard who points out that removing ones shoes isn’t generally accepted in the museum, Clarence makes the case that “It’s not much different than artists setting up their easels and copying masterpieces.” Really? Really? This, it seems to me, could be the germ of a major claim about the function of art, about the act of museum-going, etc. But Clarence just blabbers it out there. I, for one, was amazed his shoes didn’t get “quite forgotten” as he wandered off to his next cup of coffee and therapeutic scribble session.
This is a very bad book, but it will surely prove most painful to anyone who cares, even in passing, about art, museums, or writing, and will certainly prove crushing to anyone who values subtlety, the sound of language, or takes seriously the idea that art might change us in some deeper sense than merely serving as a prop for solipsistic daydreams. Clarence and his ex become reacquainted, predictably enough, at an art museum:
While examining how the art was arranged in the context of the walls, roofs, slanted ceilings, staircases, and so forth, it felt like I was being reacquainted with the Arietta I once knew, before we’d grown apart. By making each other aware of this or that detail we were simultaneously exploring who we once were and who we’d become. At the same time I was also aware of all the things that we’d never spoken about, and it felt like a widening abyss beneath us, filled with the pain we’d caused each other. Did she feel it too? Had she analyzed our relationship like I had—gone over each and every detail?
Good God, I hope she hasn’t, but then again, this is the woman who explained her lesbianism in terms of Dix, so of course she’s the sort who, if you’re standing beside her staring at Henri Rousseau’s The Sleeping Gypsy, will soliloquize:
Take a look, there are six stars in the sky, but the eye of the lion is like a seventh star—the brightest one. For me the lion has always stood for courage; and the number seven, which is recognized as a spiritual number in almost every culture, I see as representative of wholeness or unity of soul. However, the lion can also kill, or be killed, which would prevent the harmonic possibilities of the seven…
I wanted to like this book. I kept reading until the bitter end. I would like to write the most generous review possible, and I am afraid that is what I am doing. You will only be able to avoid hating this book if you find some trace of charm in the dull pomposity of its narrative voice. You will only be able to endure this wretched book if you can endure bludgeoning, bloodless passages like this, in reference to the installation The Gates, in Central Park:
Passing through the inaugural gate was almost a ceremonial act; I was conscious of their symbolic significance—gate and archways have always held an important place in mythologies, legends, folk tales, fables, as well as in social customs and traditions, expressing change from one state into another—inner and outer (expressions of initiation and transformation). They convey a beginning or an end, an entering and an exiting. As it is, we are continuously going through something, yet we’re mostly unconscious of all these little gateways. In between there are the more obvious occasions like the first day of school, the wedding day, respective graduations, transfers, promotions, or the first home run (not to mention unforgettable disasters, accidents, firings, break-ups, and so forth). But even within each day we traverse through wide and narrow, tall and tiny gates, mostly unconsciously. Gateways demarcate one state from another, and the grandest, most mysterious ones we call birth and death.