Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.
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Context / Design:
In the couples counselor’s waiting room there was a little tray of sand, with rocks, a miniature rake. Here, it said, the Zen garden as practice. Arrange my pieces. Create a pattern of such artifice that it almost passes, at a certain angle, for natural, or offers an echo of that always elusive ideal. This was Pittsburgh, a patina of coal fumes on anything of a certain age, like the ornamental stone work outside the office window, with a view across a street to a wall of logos for professional sports teams. One or both of us—or maybe all three, if you count the professional intervener, the one who rephrases and narrates—decided we’d get away from the city for the weekend, that sun and green would prove therapeutic in a pre-linguistic way. The drive out to Fallingwater felt like travelling back in time, but, like the Zen garden, like the sparse posed stalks of ikebana, less literal than ideal; a trip not through real history, but into a shared dream of the primordial. And after Ohiopyle, jagged whitecaps, raised metal letters on a sign about Indian wars, some place with a big screen-in porch and beaded pints of beer, there was this house that looked so much smaller, at first and in person, than it did in photographs, swallowed by the wooded gorge in which it has been placed. If it didn’t speak, it certainly groaned. The people on our tour bent over at each low door, waiting to squeeze past a narrow hall, examine another slab of stone, another low bookshelf stacked with picture books of Asian art. People made nervous jokes, unnerved by something of the claustrophobia of context, the sense of perpetual threat, the trickle, the mild vertigo. This is the bedroom Brad and Angelina rented recently for a night, we were told. The gift shop sold earrings echoing the design of chair backs and light fixtures.
Fragility / Threat:
Parker’s luscious novella tells a story of this house, from multiple perspectives, including that of the house itself, but centering around Liliane Kaufman, for whom, along with her husband Edgar, Fallingwater was built as a weekend retreat. We meet Liliane first under a sky illuminated by sleeping pills, standing on her cantilevered balcony as, in an attempt to feel like an ideal of nature, it moves slightly in the night. Liliane remembers Wright as he “strutted about the house . . . [and] pointed with his cane to this feature and that....”
The one that always stuck with Liliane, that she experienced more deeply as the years passed, was the relationship between outside and inside. The inside’s floors and walls are made of rough outdoor stone, quarried just downstream, and the rock of the fireplace (strange to remember how it was once outside, how they used to picnic on it) could not be contained; it spills into the main room. The “basement” is the stream itself. The low ceilings, the architect had said, create a feeling of protection and comfort from the outdoors, while the overhanging terraces can only be compared, he declared, to the cliffs of the Romantic sublime.
Here we experience the architectural accomplishment also through a tour—the guide speaks as the house, too, using a disconcerting plural “we”—and Liliane’s young hunger and increasing emotional suffocation finds echo in the dramas of the tour group, from the clairvoyant teenager to the Harley-riding history buff to the couple just approved to bring an adopted child into their crumbling marriage. The house suffers; here architecture is also agon, or, as Parker puts it at one point, “Gravity pushed down, and the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy pushed back up.” And each narrowness, each stoop, each intrusion of monumental rock, each hard surface, each potential leap-to-death, reiterates and gives physical form to those already too-real abstractions of enduring relationships. Even without a ghost on its balconies, the house accentuates feelings of fragility and threat, leaves a visitor alone in a group of strangers, experiencing some echo of Liliane’s own experience: “And then one day she wakes up . . . and she has been married for forty years. They have been married, of course, but they have been married in such very different ways that she marks it as a personal milestone.”
History / Artifact:
I had just given her a robot to clean the floors, a little hockey puck of a thing that slowly whirred around, in random orbits, eating cat hair until its rollers clogged. For weeks it had sat in the same place, by the corner of a chair. Something was said of all that, or linking the thing to other, more abstract, things. We sat with our hands crossed in our laps, speaking slowly, using words like distance, drain, marginalized, infuriation. We agreed that what we no longer felt like home for each other. History unrolls gradually, then all of a sudden. The house here, in Parker’s text, speaks of time as architecture, of disintegration via weather, “ground down by glaciers, eroded by wind and sea, sculptured by timeless forces” another voice visualizes a more compact but still maw-wide chronology: “And then, one day, people: Monongahela, Lenape, Shawnee, Iroquois. And with them, names. The river that twists and turns: Yawyawganey.” On our tour, looking perhaps too long and lustfully at a bar set, whiskey decanters and highball glasses, she turned to me and spoke, saying something about the floor, stone, a comment, shattering, shards. So civilized as to be barbaric: “cantilevered couches and animal fur rugs,” as if the place were a psychological experiment, Wright’s design as a kind of test on how people can stand to continue to live. Maybe that is too harsh a reading, like the man who quips, early in this book, that from the outside Fallingwater “looks like math class.” But one secret to Parker’s work is reading the history of the house in tension to own most dramatic elements—those features Wright pokes at with his self-satisfied cane. If the house is, on the one hand, this act of exertion, force, a man’s ego imposed on stone and place, Parker reads it, too, as a venue haunted by a half-erased feminine consciousness, Liliane’s ghost as memories of tastes of freedom, however fleeting, as well as this resistance to everything hard and cold and solid. Parker’s Liliane quotes Goethe: “The soul of man resembles the water.... The fate of man resembles the waves.” Parker’s slightly psychic teenage girl realizes the house is designed for an audience of, as she says “God—or Dad,” a lofty and inhuman patriarchal ideal like the one that shapes the dominant discourse such that Liliane is swept to the corner (“In the article, Liliane will be referred to as the ‘first Mrs. Kaufmann.’”). This book, then, is a resurgence, a counter-reading of Fallingwater (where Parker has worked as a guide, and of which she is a subtle critic—a site in which she is clearly in a complicated and deeply considered relationship). A skillful and moving story, then, becomes something more: a response to, a very fluid and dance-like engagement with this building, this history. And the book itself, it must be noted, is a work of visual art, gorgeously designed by the team at Rose Metal (I found Heather Butterfield’s “A Note About the Type,” at the very end, to be as lush and evocative as the novella itself—which here felt particularly organic and needful in relation to the text). My own Fallingwater flowed through my reading of this book, but as, I felt, part of the design, calling for a kind of chorus, this accumulation of voices speaking their own angles on the experience of this place. I found this novella to be remarkably participatory—as art history, as criticism, as meditation, as its own variety of group tour through this site and this history. In contrast to art as vision imposed, experienced inflicted, what has been designed here is a crossing paths, a haunting encounter, an encouragement to consider the building from various perspectives, to wander and imagine. In contrast to a design that testifies to a single ego, a crafting hand, here is a book inspiringly celebratory of the multiplicity of stories, the constant trickle that can be discerned—if you listen for it—just below the concrete.
Official Kelcey Parker Web Site
Official Rose Metal Press Web Site