(REVIEW) Story by Jennifer Firestone
Nasim Luczaj reviews Jennifer Firestone's collection Story (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2019), revealing the text's entanglements with fields it stands in complex relation to, and the ways in which this work triggers new kinds of thinking in us, as readers.
> In his Philosophical Investigations (1953), Ludwig Wittgenstein famously remarked that ‘philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday’ — when not properly at work, language breeds conceptual confusions that would never have taken place if we hadn’t pampered, displaced, undressed, and smothered it with sun cream. I felt a persistent echo of this line throughout reading Jennifer Firestone’s Story – a hybrid take on questions of narrative composed primarily of single lines of poetry.
> Both Wittgenstein and Firestone maintain an astonishing take on language — they sustain a devotion to it while remaining equally devotedly suspicious of it, persistently tapping at the surface of the tip of the tongue, the place where tools can be turned over to become what they are applied to. Firestone is honest about problems that arise from the choice to write — and especially to write a ‘story’ — while in some sense continuing to do so, albeit reservedly. Wittgenstein’s conclusive attack on the whole discipline of philosophy is so brilliant that it only breeds more philosophers (true story). Philosophical Investigations and Story create new forms of engagement with fields they stand in complex relation to and, by doing so, trigger new kinds of thinking in their readers. These texts move between inducing a sense of hopeless complicity (we think in certain ways, we use particular tools) and flippant transgression (we can turn a tool against itself). By applying a certain lens of language, we come to notice how inevitably entangled we are as readers, thinkers, writers, anything.
> The connection occurred to me because Story takes place on holiday; the details through which it presents its landscape and characters are saturated with the fact. I’m inclined to think that holidays themselves are oversaturated with holiday, bound to the cultivation a self-conscious mode of manoeuvring through surroundings and time, a way of interpreting presence. Story is quick to alert to the charge of the holiday setting, and it investigates the evocativeness of stating simple coordinates (beach/body/sand/foreign land). The book subtly handles the desire to have stories served summery, to experience something psychologically difficult or dip into a dramatic event in this setting; it faces authorial inclinations to write characters into foreign lands and situations in which tensions surface naturally and relationships are easily distilled. I’m not sure how widespread the temptation is, but I certainly suffer from it. When writing fiction, I go there again and again, as if it were a convenient, tried, tested, and now familiarly beloved resort.
> Where Firestone puts language to work, narrative goes on holiday with the whole self-conscious air this entails. Description is given speech marks. Story finds agency and body: it ‘chuckles’, ‘questions’, ‘gristles in the wind’; it is on the beach like the ‘he’ and the ‘she’, the bartender, the sand, the ambulance, the waves; is not at all a sum of its parts. The place where you expect to find the story of that ‘he’ and ‘she’, or of the ‘honeymoon’, is a dead end. Perhaps this is a holiday from how we habitually connect sentence after sentence, splicing action into action, unknowingly committing greater or smaller acts of postproduction. Sentences are sort of alone here, but in a way that gives them enough space to be properly taken in and then connected in a more overarching sense – more elementally, more truly to what might be called their nature. Sand is concretely presented on the page as ‘bead bead bead’ etc. The holiday is cut and zoomed in on. Camera and film and story and photography and page feature explicitly, but it is a futility inherent in these tools that gives the reader nourishment: ‘In front of blue words fall as they may’. The concluding sentence: ‘„Bodies sit down and language delivers.”’ is itself a final delivery reaching the reader and prodding them to self-consciousness. It’s a nod to distilment and to the practice of image description laced with and twisted by the poetic.
> We don’t start off in the present tense; the text makes languorous moves from the past towards present, offering up variant sentences like a sea handing out waves birthed by shifted winds. The very first line reads: ‘A beach at midday in a foreign land read as a good beginning’. Despite the default primacy of the past tense in literature, it’s so easy to slip into reading this ‘read’ as reads, as if anticipating that the text will settle on the present tense. Unless we are learning to read or incredibly tired, reading always manages to happen before we’ve clocked it has. A story tends to happen before we tell it. Then again, a reader’s mental action that brings the story about in them is necessarily real-time, while the space enacted lies arguably outside of time. Tense is almost an add-on or afterthought. In Story, the peculiarity of the past tense that I’ve just outlined is conjured with a single, fantastically minuscule gesture.
> In this text, such admirable precision in suggestiveness can be observed again and again. There are lots of clues as to what might be happening in the story, but I was much more interested in the act of letting some breadcrumbs fall — while making sure the others never see path — itself. Trauma is deliberately named – named as a preference, as what we seek in films and stories, what we need to be engaging with. However, I must admit that the importance of the unspecified trauma looming over the text washed over me completely on the first reading, which, to me, was more of a sitting with sentences, a serious attempt at holidaymaking from the world into the coordinates of beach-couple-sea. I felt fully fulfilled by this almost abstract register. It was both frightening and educational to come back to Story and notice how willingly I’d given myself to an erasure and focused on the allure of sweepingly concrete style, on the strange sustained torrentially of subdued sentence after sentence that resembled subtitles for something not fit for seeing, each with its own space, implied distance, an aloofness that sometimes delivers calculated emotional impact and sometimes doesn’t. I read into sentences as ornaments, smug about how happily I could go on sustaining myself on the beauty of language itself, with the feeling of a blatant nothing behind it.
> Read again and again, the one-liners and disjointed couplets of which Story is composed reveal what complex relationships they stand in towards each other and to notions of authorial intention, narrative, story, telling, figuring, trauma, film. It is impossible to keep track of all of these at once. They tell you they are there, but what they are saying does not simply stand for some story and space imagined by the writer and passed on to be reconstructed by a reader (although the honeymoon is described as ‘deconstructed’, then typographically deconstructed in a following section). It’s a little like what Jean-Paul Sartre has to say about electricity at the very start of Being and Nothingness (1956): ‘an electric current has no secret reverse side’. We habitually imagine something ‘behind’ everything, and that is also the way in which we describe intention. We get the feeling the text is not letting us in on purpose, but there needn’t be anything behind the voice in quotation marks (though there can be). There needn’t be a story of trauma behind the reference to trauma (though there may be). The description needn’t describe a place anyone has seen, including the one describing (though it often does).
> Story is fantastic at letting you know what you seek in texts and, on another reading perhaps, how you feel about what you cannot help but seek or pick up on. Do you want a story? Do you want an event to follow without disassociating from it? Do you want to be reading sentences like beads of lit water? Do you want to think about what someone telling you what happened might mean when it’s made up? Each reading adds nuance to the answers. I find that a remarkable balance of detective work, poetry, and entry point into theory is struck here. Nevertheless, reading this work also made me a bit jittery around the question of how much I am like other readers, and so to what extent this will also be true to them. It made me notice I am not at all bothered by the undisclosed in a way I believe many others would be (though perhaps they would not – this has to remain open). Or I might actually be waiting for the trauma to be fleshed out, the drama to overtly take its toll, and a part of me is veiling this desire because it conflicts with fetishising lack of curiosity about the material world and human affairs. It doesn’t matter much which of these is true, if any, but it matters very much (I think!) that we get thinking.
> Story got me thinking not only about story – what we expect and want from one – but also about how we narrate our own lives to ourselves, how we disassociate during our actual holidays, to what extent we can meaningfully say that we steer our own actions and decide what happens to us. To me, a line such as ‘the driver was written to think’ didn’t take away from the fictive liveliness of the driver, but rather alerted me to the possibility of tracking determinism in my own words and actions. The driver is written to think the way I might be in some extremely general sense ‘written’ to read, to interpret the way I interpret, to move the way I move. The sensation of acknowledging this possibility is difficult, valuable, and surprisingly seldom conjured by literature.
> Eventually, we read that the story has ‘shed its encumbered plot’. In its material qualities, Story has a shedding aspect to it from the very outset. Its horizontal postcard format makes you feel like you’re holding a booklet of postcards and ripping them out one by one. The sentences are like subtitles burned into a film, like tattoos —sparse crystallizations of what is at once an instant and a result of everything that happened before it, a long and thoughtful ripening – encouraging attentiveness to the page, the skin, and then to what might or cannot be behind it (the cellulose, the language). Whether the lines – especially those in the middle section of the text, where they are subject to sharp and unexpected jumbling – are hinges, arrows, markings on a random road, or a spillage in Adobe InDesign, I am happy to drop everything and go by them, with them.
Story is now available to order from Ugly Duckling Presse.
Text: Nasim Luczaj