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Six Personal Investigations of the Act of Reading:

Stephen Graham Jones' The Bird is Gone : a manifesto



Stephen Graham Jones

I've never been one to stop much during the act of reading-by this I mean that unless (as they often do) some things come up to take me away from a piece of writing I have sat down to go through, I read in an unrelenting flow, one word, the next, the next-if there is a word I don't recognize, I don't find a dictionary, if there is a name I don't know how to pronounce, I just resort to acknowledging it visually, and if I feel lost, if I for whatever reason miss a cue, don't exactly get a firm grounding or sense of place, pace, situation etc. well...I just go on.

***

I've always been of a mind that literature and the act of reading literature is a particular interface meant to stimulate and jar loose associations, the act is one of immersion, much the same as (in a lay sense) I would listen to a piece of music-if I don't catch the chorus of a rock-and-roll song, I don't rewind before the song is finished, pause, squint my ears until I have it and if I don't quite get the import of a ballad-love or murder-I don't, during the act of listening, find secondary resources to help me understand peculiarities in word choice or rhythmic progression.

And I am a lay reader-as much as I admire (and truly truly I do) a scholarly reader and awe at what they do, much like I envy at what Glenn Gould would hear when a quartet plays versus what I would, I nonetheless embrace my philosophy of lay readership, finding it no less pertinent or of import than its counterpoint.

***

Rather early on in Stephen Graham Jones' novel The Bird is gone: a manifesto, there is a sequence where a character has ingested hallucinogenic substances and the prose of the novel carries us along with the viewpoint of this character, making no blatant distinguishing between tangible reality and perceived reality-the narcotic-sequence-of-events is as real and pertinent and banal as the non-narcotic. Much in the way Celine could drift into a feverish mindscape, navigate it, and tack out if it without needing a word to note the shift in perception or a word to note the shift back, this moment is where I first felt comfortable with Jones' novel-it's also the first moment that made me wonder if my technique of reading forward with no reversal was one that had an effect-and possibly a detrimental effect-on my reading of the piece, or any piece.

What am I to do when confronted with a text that (and it seems at the least blatantly if not flippantly, Jones' does this) eschews any call to ordinary context, especially a text that, despite this dissociative quality, seems to be telling a linear story-or, better to say, as is my impression of Jones' work, "wants to be telling a linear story" (or better still, a text that, while wholly nonlinear, "contains a linear story")

Because, Bird is not a linear story in the same way that, for example, The Trial is not a linear story-much as there is prose denoting character, mood, opinion, and action, the very nature of "un-realitying" the piece purposefully undertakes makes normal, human, interpersonal narrative-connection completely non-essential, even ill fitting.

***

Or I thought so, at any rate. And in the many times my daily activities took me away from the book, these thoughts took up some time in my considerations-it could be said that these thoughts about the nature-of-the-book became part-and-parcel to my experience-of-the-book. Which is not, I wouldn't think, what the author intended (to use that slightly ill phrase) and not what, generally, I intend.

My act of departing from the novel and returning, according to the dictates of my life, is one that long ago (so much so it is subconscious, now) I accepted-that's a flat fact, but it's also, I realize, part of how I read. And it redoubles the difficulty of context in a work like Jones', because the fragmented, self-consciously constructed aspects of Bird stand precariously enough on their own (stable, no doubt, but precarious) without the added cross to bear of a reader (me) moving through them with no pause and then diving in every three pages after being distracted, not even back peddling a paragraph to get an idea "Where was I?"

***

Bird, to say a few words about it directly, is a novel that in both plot-element and technique seems to me built upon the fascinating premise that myth, folklore, arcane (and perhaps apocryphal) symbolic identity and history is actually much easier and more tangibly grasped than the nuance of the here-and-now. The here-and-now, flashing forward two hundred, two thousand years, might as well be mythology and so it seems that were the events of today described in a language akin to that of myth, fable, poetic dreamscape, they would be equally as unconsciously understood as an epic poem or piece of folklore from the past-indeed, the sociopolitical context of the here-and-now would lose bearing on matters just as that of ancient times does not influence a casual understanding of stories originating there. But throughout Bird, I found myself much more readily able to "understand" and "follow" the abstract narratives introduced, those set outside of time and place-oral legend, description of abstract, expressionist stage-play-than the story set in the immediate present (a fictional future, to follow the conceit of the novel) and this further made me conscious of how I behave as reader.

Hadn't I ought to be taking some pains to interpret, rather than to experience? The fact that I increasingly understood the work was not an abstraction merely because of the circumstances of my having to read it piecemeal, but was actually, purposefully a carefully constructed series of (to my way of thinking) fever dream revelations, an "abstract on purpose" seemed to be relevant, but I didn't care to interface with the piece outside of my ordinary methods (or, perhaps I should say, anti-methods).

***

Yet here: why would I say "carefully constructed"? Why this assumption as a reader about the motivations or techniques of the writer-motivations and techniques which, really, I should say I feel are irrelevant?

***

I found the prose of the novel intelligent, cognizant of itself (even at times arresting, beautiful) so from this I assumed there must've been a schematic, some mathematic to decipher which could render the novel "more ordinary" make the fact it was constructed and written with such obvious avoidance of ordinary pattern-of-thought or narrative construct nothing more than a fun-and-games, a personal indulgence of kink on the part of the Jones.

But this is absurd. In the same way I could not say Bob Dylan's book Tarantula-which I felt kin to Bird-was either calculated or uncalculated, and couldn't (and certainly shouldn't) equate it to being unconsidered gobbledygook, just something churned out willy-nilly without reason merely because it seems pattern-less with regard to generic "books", I could not say that Bird was either careful or slapdash, purposeful or (even partially) random.

***

I will state bluntly that I think imagining or wanting context in literature to come from the author is a pointless and irrelevant way to experience it--this reduces art to chit-chat, reduces experience to smiling at someone else's anecdote.

***

Do I, in fact, while I am reading think that what I read "wants me to understand it"? Is understanding at all relevant to my experience as a reader?

I've never found literature to be (or at least not primarily) a tool for aiding understanding-in fact, the fever-dream sequence I considered Bird, a writing that seemed unconcerned with itself except as expression of mind-state, poetic, sequences-of-words that "fit-together" but meant as little as they meant much, is something I find profoundly valuable in reading, the act. To start a book (a pile of words) and to read them, in sequence, regardless of whether anything is being consciously grasped is a kind of sublime thing-much like when walking down the street I notice only some microscopic portion of what there is yet say I know the street, I think it is a misstep on the part of a reader to think that a novel, merely because its order can be manipulated, can be reordered, should be, and a bigger misstep to think the reordering is more appropriate, or as appropriate, as letting the sequence lay.

A side-thought that kept cropping into my mind while reading Jones' book was that sequence, in the end, is irrelevant, because the mind does not remember things sequentially, however much it may receive input that way. Indeed, I've often felt that it might be better to say "I watched a book" than "I read it" -the same way one watching the performers of a symphony orchestra or watching the specific colours of stage lighting during a play is impactful and necessary-the way a book is watched, under what circumstances, is as much a part of its necessary self, its lived self, as the words, the craft, the thing.

***

Yet for all of my belief in a necessary disintegration of authorial intent, intent-of-artwork, for all of my preferring to note my own thought processes when confronting a piece rather than ponder the theoretical thought processes of others, I still have to admit that I have preferences and cannot talk my way out of them-I have preferences, beliefs, and so my time with Bird brought up another question-Do I consider it something I've read?

After all, if I listened to portions of a song, five seconds at a time, over the course of a month, I would be in little position to say I even knew what it "sounded like" let alone that I'd listened to it. In fact, books, like music, I principally feel are built, intended, needed-to-be read more than once. Certainly I could not think that either Jones or (to be poetic a moment) the book itself would consider someone who gave it a close, careful, sequential, investigative first read in any better position to say they've read it than someone who read it half-drunk and mad-dash if both parties only went through just the once-going through pages slowly, keeping a notebook to assure myself of X or Y or Z is not a way to any more make certain I have read something-indeed, I would imagine with a piece such as Bird a methodical, calculating reader would come away as much with a void on them as I have.

***

The subject matter of what is read is irrelevant to the act of reading-perhaps that is the quickest way to summarize here, and The Bird is Gone: a manifesto, seems if not to embrace that (for who could ever say that) but to represent it.

Jones seems to me to have rendered an instant folklore, something no more understood than not, something to be hummed and made into separate songs as much as the novel itself (in choice of section break and typeface) makes itself so clearly built of components, shows all the seams of the garment as part of the seamless whole. It's something of a tradition-less folklore (or I think of it that way) an instantly old story, bereft of specificity, left only to personal interaction and interpretation-it's like something written in a lost language and translated by guesswork, the party translating aware that all of the important words lack context, lack the ability to be themselves-much the same way an ancient might point smiling to a slumbering volcano to mean "we have to be careful" but without knowledge of their worldview I might just think they were pointing to a peaceful hill, tranquility, a symbol of peace.

Pablo D'Stair is a writer of novels, shorts stories, and essays. Founder of Brown Paper Publishing (which is closing its doors in 2012) and co-founder of KUBOA (an independent press launching July 2011) he also conducts the book-length dialogue series Predicate. His four existential noir novellas (Kaspar Traulhaine, approximate; i poisoned you; twelve ELEVEN thirteen; man standing behind) will be re-issued through KUBOA as individual novella and in the collection they say the owl was a baker's daughter: four existential noirs.

 

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