Callicoon, NY: Nightboat Books, 2016. 184 pages. $15.95.
(Click on cover image to purchase)
The reviewer of Brian Blanchfield’s new book, Proxies: Essays Near Knowing, may be tempted to try the compositional constraints Blanchfield outlines in his prefatory note: to turn off the Internet, to avoid consulting the text under discussion, to follow the line of inquiry into personal discomfort and to continue unpacking from there. This reviewer’s memory isn’t that good, however, and as for discomfort, well, this obviously won’t, or shouldn’t, be about me. The more salient point is how difficult it would be to imitate what Blanchfield has done. What an achievement these essays are.
The book’s structural and thematic conceit would seem to be that the truths on offer are provisional, subject to imprecision and error. Each begins with the same mantra or credo, “Permitting Shame, Error and Guilt, Myself the Single Source,” and the book ends with its own variety of error bar, a twenty-page section titled “Correction”—an extended series of annotations offering small and large elaborations on various points raised in the text. To frame the book in these terms, however—thereby evoking recent conversations about truthiness in nonfiction—doesn’t do it justice. By his own admission, Blanchfield is “a complexifier” who “bristle[s] at definitive limits.” Nuance is the name of the game in Proxies, and the best expression of how this subtlety plays out in its pages may come from the essays themselves—from “On Confoundedness,” for example, an essay in which Blanchfield traces his religious upbringing and connects it to his creative work. In a description of his poems that applies equally to Proxies, he writes that his work mostly refuses to “be direct except as one of several modes”; he may “try on aphorism but will not arrive at epiphany, preferring a moment-to-moment revelatoriness.” He concludes that he has recreated in his writing “the immersive experience of enigma which so repelled me as a child.”
The essays are therefore about their subjects, those enigmas the work assays, in the same way one looks about a room. The writing takes place in proximity to its announced rubrics, and while Blanchfield certainly addresses tumbleweed in “On Tumbleweed,” and house sitting in “On House Sitting,” et cetera, these “subjects” serve, in Montaigne’s long tradition, primarily as points of departure or reference, signposts along the road through the author’s rich interiority, or else indicators of those places where inner and outer meet and diverge. (Other titles, by comparison, are more fittingly nebulous: “On Authorship,” “On Abstraction,” “On the Near Term.”) If you’re looking for practical advice on how to put together a teaching dossier, there are better places to go than Blanchfield’s “On Dossiers.” If, on the other hand, you’re interested more broadly in what a dossier entails, à la Roland Barthes, or if you’re interested in what a writer might mean by the movement “from needing to know where I stood to wanting to stand on what I knew,” then this is the essay collection for you.
“On Dossiers” highlights, incidentally, one of those recurrent enigmas—Blanchfield’s relation to and frustration with the academy—that furrow the essays, submerging and reemerging throughout. The more endearing and enduring of these have to do with the conflicted relationships he has with his mother and estranged father (they divorced when he was fairly young), his alternately “nefarious” and “admirable” stepfather, Frank (whose last name Blanchfield acquired upon his adoption, shortly after his mother remarried), and, most touchingly, his relationship with his partner, John. In his treatment of these often fraught and fragile but also strangely durable bonds, as in the book’s disclosures about his sex life (I learned a decent amount about gay porn from reading it), Blanchfield aspires to what he calls the “radical self-baring candor” of the late writer, artist, and activist David Wojnarowicz, most famous for his book Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration. Blanchfield’s essays, he says elsewhere, provide “inroads to disinhibited autobiography,” and nowhere is that aspirational vulnerability more striking, and more painful, than when he writes about his family. His life, he says in “On the Leave,” referring to what was essentially his father’s abandonment of him, “is among other things a reply, even a remark on the human abdication that got me here.” That this candor arrives just a few paragraphs after Blanchfield describes a night in 2005 when he was jerked off against a barroom pool table before heading home “in jizzy jeans” is not accidental: “to heal,” he writes in “On Peripersonal Space,” means “a refusal to conceal or be concealed.”
In that same essay, Blanchfield details his mother’s response to his first book, “the highest achievement of my life to that point.” He writes that she was “disgusted” and found it “so offensive and shameful in its ‘display’ she wished every copy could be retrieved and burned.” It’s a remarkable comment on Blanchfield’s generosity and care that, given this “most basic and complete of rejections,” he is still able to find it within him, in time, to suggest to his mother that “there was room for her to be openly, publicly honest about who I am and still disapprove of it.” The passage is among the most moving in the book, not least because the compromise is so extreme. He shouldn’t have to deal with such disapproval, though I’m not so naïve as to imagine this sort of thing isn’t happening all the time. That he does deal with her disapproval, that he finds a way to navigate the tensions between his mother’s rejection of him and their indissoluble bond, attests to the paradoxical places to which these essays boldly take us, again and again.
“Queer it if you can,” Blanchfield writes at the end of “On the Leave,” and it’s worth noting that in addition to all its other fine qualities, Proxies is an eloquent exploration, maybe even a spirited defense, of “the queer heart,” whose drives are “particularly ‘useless’ to forms of procreative increase” (or their textual counterparts). “Not now and not yet,” this heart insists, producing in turn “orders of relationality that obviate or détourn . . . proposing (if not forming) units more supple and adaptive to the precariat fluidity of contemporary living.” Blanchfield is talking about family here, of course, but it’s entirely reasonable to read the structural and thematic conceit of the “proxy” in light of these claims. Perhaps the book’s error bars assert, more than anything else, the possibility of a queer truth, which obviates or détourns traditional registers of reality.
I said at the outset that this wouldn’t be about me, and I won’t renege here, except to mention that, after five years without writing a single review, I read my advance copy of Proxies while sitting on the beaches of a Caribbean island. To my great delight, there was no Internet, no phone—just the companionship of my loved ones, and the companionable essays I’d brought with me. Proxies may indeed be braver than Blanchfield, as he claims in that prefatory note, but the person for whom these essays stand in is someone I’m happy, to paraphrase one of the book’s refrains, to have discovered as though having remembered. Sometimes you don’t know what you’re looking for until you find it, in other words. For me, this was it.