“This Baggy Monster”: Gretchen E. Henderson’s Galerie de Difformité

John Brown Spiers

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Lake Forest, IL: Lake Forest College Press, 2011. 268 pages. $15.00.
(Click on cover image to purchase)

The back cover of Gretchen E. Henderson’s Galerie de Difformité promises a work with “the head of a novel and the body of a poem.” In fact, Galerie is a literary art collage, employing image almost as often as it does language, and a ruination, its words first erased, then laid atop themselves, highlighted, obscured by photographs and further ruined text. Henderson’s creation takes every opportunity to explore how multiple genres interact, and what they might lead toward, reveling in its own possibilities as it does so.

Her manipulation of form echoes the choose-your-own-adventure story that presents Galerie’s central narrative: Literal “exhibits” of deformed language and image within the book Galerie de Difformité are among the metatextual exhibits in the fictional Galerie de Difformité curated by the fictional Gloria Heys, to whom the actual author Gretchen E. Henderson’s avatar Gretchen E. Henderson wrote a series of letters, themselves incorporated into the text. The overlap between the epistles and the objects and interactions they describe becomes the self-reflexive “MAP of the Galerie,” one that “wends around crowded corners, circuitously folding back on itself, transgressing other exhibits and digressing through slideshows and special features.” And each exhibit is a special feature unto itself, employing some combination of expository material, epistles, the occasional poem, and deformation activities. “Exhibit T” begins with the header “Pick A Card, Any Card,” beneath which are nestled twenty-six notecard-images: “Deformity as Universal”; “Deformity as ADA”; “Deformity as Communal”; “Deformity as Dumb & Lame Metaphors”; “Deformity as Form,” and the like. At the bottom of the page, we are invited to “play a card (above or your own): write it here: ‘Deformity as ________.’ Then turn to page 213 & write it there”; to “unpack one of these terms [by turning] to page 187,” or to “turn forward or backward” the same number of pages as our age.

The jubilant proliferation of options, along with the options’ prolific jubilance, suggests that linearity is a conventional novel’s greatest shortcoming. Galerie‘s most challenging feature is the opposite: There is such a crush of choices, coming at us from multiple points on nearly every page, that the story’s architecture overwhelms more than it guides. “To remind yourself where you are,” says one option, “turn to page 6, 18, 42, 150, 225, or 230.” “To continue to redefine deformity,” reads another, “turn to one of the following pages: 34, 50, 73, 99, 141, 156, 172.” Elsewhere, they become baffling microcosms of the work, as in: “Pick a page, any page: 33, 45, 49, 57, 68, 72, 94, 98, 113, 117, 136, 140, 147, 151, 155, 167, 171, 182, 186, 198, 203, 207.” These signs are an elbow, intended for the ribs, that instead lands in the gut; we’re breathless, but not for the same reason that the curator is. To be sure, instability is a requirement of any project based on redefinition. Here, the requirement means it’s difficult to get invested in any of Galerie’s situations, since we never spend long enough with any one of them to become immersed. Orienting ourselves is a further challenge–sometimes we’re in a physical establishment, sometimes one of paper and ink, and the connection between book-as-museum and museum-as-tangible-space doesn’t develop beyond occasional references to maps, exhibits, curators.

In the midst of this continual re-orientation, Henderson’s poetry is beautiful and mysterious. “The voice // warps & wraps my heart / in the heat, pulsing / watered // innards / seed me / from weeds & vines,” reads a snippet from “The Beekeeper’s Apprentice.” Like “Beatrice Portinari’s quill-shaped bone (with a hole resembling a heart),” though, or the Ugly Face Clubb, or many of the book’s rhetorical questions about form, deformity, definitions, and preconceived notions, this lush lyricism is often only glimpsed–sometimes while flipping pages, following the signs to the next exhibit.

It appears that Galerie will, ultimately, exist in a different physical form for each of its readers–no matter how delightful its adventure-choosing might seem, this is a work shaped by the destructiveness of the directions of a given tour. “Collaboratively deform the Galerie with [name: ________],” one begins. When you’re done, “document your doubling (or however you describe the process) as you alternate in making choices (or otherwise co-create a method to your madness). This can be done by turning to page 21 and/or adding a section(s) to the Appendix (page 247).” Another option: “To add deformities neglected in this Galerie, turn to page 220 or 221.” The Galerie’s “Exhibit U” is, appropriately enough, two pages empty save for a gentle exhortation: “(fill in blank).” The number of invocations to deface, alter, eradicate, reshape, palimpsest, or otherwise deform the Galerie begs consideration of the reader’s role in any novel. How does a reader’s involvement continue the story beyond the last printed page? How does a community of readers shape a published text, and how is that community’s involvement any different from the literal shaping Henderson’s project requires?

Physically, the difference is obvious. Should we follow, fill in, and write on all the orders, empty boxes, and blank lines we come across on even a single read-through, our copy of the text will have been irrevocably altered. Future directions won’t compute when entire pages have been cut out or are defaced to the point of obscurity. Practically, then, the book becomes more about the process of interaction than any story in its pages, any structure erected by its words. If the path we take through the book isn’t particularly important–and, judging by the ecstatic redundancy of those paths, it isn’t–it’s almost impossible to know how to understand what we find along the way. By filling in and cutting out as directed, we’re following well-intentioned instructions, but turning our copies into artifacts: we can only deform for so long before running out of space, can only overwrite until the instructions themselves are gone. By then, we may be creating art which the original Galerie de Difformité will have become secondary to. Whether that’s good or bad, inspiring or frustrating, has more to do with the kinds of readers we are than any of the book’s intentions. “This baggy monster is a novel,” reads a line on the copyright page, “a form born of variant forms.” The work that follows emerges from specific genres, before it deliberately strays–and, turning, with an earnest smile, asks whether we will follow.

Visit the Galerie de Difformité online

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