5+ Points on Ideas of Structure and Orner’s Love and Shame and Love

Weston Cutter
January 4, 2012
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1.             I’ve been scrambling for a good while for ways to talk coherently about one of the best novels of the past however long, Peter Orner’s Love and Shame and Love. It’s gotten good attention, yes, but not anywhere near as much attention as it should have, given both the gorgeousness of the story and the organic luxury of its storytelling.


2.             Regarding the gorgeousness of the story: Love and Shame and Love tracks three generations of a liberal Chicago family, the Poppers. Specifically it tracks the stories of three of the men of the family. Ultimately the specifics of plot and family history aren’t critical. The stories are largely prosaic, basic, common-enough: there are marraiges that do not work out, and there are sadnesses that the men (and their spouses or beloveds) tuck with silence into their hearts’s sock drawers, and there are fears and anxieties—there are, in short, lots of ways in which the Poppers’s stories are basically stories you’ve heard or read before. I say this without the remotest hint of criticism: I ultimately didn’t much care about the Poppers, as people, in ways I care about other characters in other works of character-driven fiction, and I’d guess most readers won’t. Again: that’s not remotely a criticism.


3.            There’s this recent news about Danielewski and his latest project. For those of us with an interest in how fiction’s presented and consumed, Danielewski’s always bound to generate interest. There’re also these books from Tank, which are interesting for the ways they offer new notions of how to consume a story. And there’s, in poetry, this interview with Christopher Louvet, editor of Floating Wolf Quarterly, which is only moderately but I’d argue still interestingly about how writing’s presented to a reader.


4.            (One of my abiding obsessions regards structure in terms of writing, though structure isn’t even that accurate necessarily. I’ve written about this stuff plenty elsewhere so don’t much want to rehash it fresh here, but I don’t know how any of us can write without being actively aware of how the writing’s presented—and, if we’re thinking of such questions, we have to confront some sort of hairy aspects of fiction and poetry that are, to my mind, largely functions of paper-based reading, and paper-based/book-reading aspects that obtain from a time we’re clearly not living in anymore. This is not some throat-clearing regarding e-readers or whatever else; it is, very much, one guy who has, in a decade, gone from sending out poems blindly to magazines, an SASE enclosed and fingers crossed, to seeing those magazines closed or gone exclusively digital, plus even when the poem gets into the mag you’re less and less likely to even find the magazine in anything other than the most dedicated indie bookstore…this is not a lament: this is just part of a larger, ongoing consideration about writing, how it’s presented and distributed—and as part of that consideration it seems necessary for us writers to think hard about how we are responsible for making our stuff necessary and relevant in new ways, and what that means. I’m not saying Colson Whitehead’s twitter feed is suddenly literature, but I am saying we’ve got to, fiction and poetry writers both, wrestle with some of these larger issues of presentation, of how we let the stories we tell come to shape. What I’m ultimately interested in is, for instance, the fact that Beckman’s last book featured title-less poems, or that Jeff Allesandri’s fantastic Erik Satie Watusies His Way Into Sound features poems written as musical scores, or that recent books by both Julia Story and Heather Christle feature poems which all are shaped as boxes. That is interesting and I think worth considering: how are we presenting stuff? How are we allowing the shapes of our art to flex and shift with changes in like and time? How come Ander Monson is the only essayist I’ve seen to really compellingly form-follow-functionly mess with how his work sits on the page?)


4.a.            (I know this stuff goes way back. There are all plenty of other examples, but they always seem rare. But recently there’s also been the re-release of BS Johnson’s novel-in-pamphlets, plus of course there’s Cortazar and Coover and lots more. I don’t necessarily mean that stuff—stuff that’s structurally inventive seemingly more for the sake of invention than anything else. Newer examples of what I’m trying to get at: Sal Plascencia’s People of Paper demanded its own form, and got it, and it worked perfectly; there’s also Joseph Weisberg’s An Ordinary Spy, a novel of which maybe 20% of the text’s been blacked out—redacted by the CIA, the reader’s to believe.)


5.            What makes Love and Shame and Love so stunningly excellent is, of course, that Orner seems not out at all to playfully, pomo-for-its-own-sake revamp the novel’s layout and threading. The messiness to Love and Shame and Love—how the story leaps and backtracks, dives into its own past and darts quickly way out to where the reader didn’t even know s/he was ready to be taken—feels entirely necessary: this feels like a novel which demanded a specific form which Orner, patiently or whateverly enough, created. That ability and willingness, on the part of the author, to swerve and invent as necessary to give the art its best possible shape and home, is certainly what I’m hoping lots more of for this year. I’m sure there are plenty of folks who are doing cool stuff, allowing their forms to shift for the sake of their art, but I’d really like to know more of them. Please: comment below. What’s the best form-shifted literature you’ve read?

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