The modernist impulse toward innovation and experiment alive in James Joyce's Ulysses
and Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons
lives on in Sandy Florian's On Wonderland & Waste
). Florian writes at the leading edge of the contemporary. Whenever I teach a work of hers, my students comment to the effect that they have never before read such sentences. To praise a work of writing, the ancient rabbis would say it "defiles the hands." Imagine that a work "defiles the hands" if reading the work changes the reader irreversibly. As with On Wonderland & Waste
, Florian's Telescope, The Tree of No
, and Prelude to Air from Water
are books for readers who want to get their hands dirty. Each exhibits a distinct idiom in which Florian recovers English as a fertile medium through which she engages topics literary traditions bequeath. Florian turns (tropes) those topics or commonplaces toward her singular meditations. In those turnings, Florian achieves her fictions.
On Wonderland & Waste collects short works encompassing a variety of Florian's modes of writing. If pressed, I might call these works prose poems, with several displaying traits of the dramatic monologue. But, in truth, the works in On Wonderland & Waste defy simple generic classification. Some of the pieces seem readable as straightforward narratives. For example, "Mornings" follows the routines of a charmingly laconic urban couple groggily entering their days. Yet "Mornings" invites the reader to become delightfully lost in a labyrinth where motifs echo, awareness shifts into and out from dreams, and time goes relative. Chapters such as "And Your Messages" and "Franchise" collage sentences together into brief first-person narratives of lyric intensity. The reader will encounter reworkings of Genesis, Hamlet, and other precursor texts. Florian's response to Hamlet, titled "Dumbshow & Noise," particularly astonishes by consisting almost entirely of words and phrases from the play recast by Florian into an anonymous drowner's haunting soliloquy.
Though already going under, this drowner communicates words, which seems impossible, barring telepathy, unless telepathy itself is impossible. Wouldn't a drowner be capable of only a thrashing dumb show and water-garbled noise? Many ways to become a drowner exist, with or without water. An early attunement to finality may suffice. Several of Florian's chapters stage the narrator or a character, even the bluebird of "Evenings," as producing words without sequel in a moment without future. The reader overhears these words, these thoughts, as if in witness to the moment in which they take place. In the places where the thoughts or words occur, time slows to a standstill, random details take on an incredible fascination, past and future mix, and death as a meaningful act of the "I" becomes unknown, though dying becomes actual. These places harbor as much dread as desire, as much terror as beauty. The literary explorer Maurice Blanchot describes such places as defining the space of literature. There, words drift from semantic fixtures, paratactic interstices spark, and the literary artist works without a net. On Wonderland & Waste excels at transporting the reader to the space of literature.
In this space, borders erode and boundaries blur, however much distinctions remain. The shellac wears off surface colors and they become achingly saturate. Tactile sensations give meaning the slip. Desires flare. Plato, or at least the Plato of Platonism, approached such literary space with trepidation. In the Republic, Socrates claims the soul has two aspects. One trusts numbers. The other images seduce. The number-trusting aspect listens attentively to voices arguing toward orderly oneness. A shoemaker is a shoemaker and nothing else, just as a circle is a circle and nothing else, for instance a triangle. Coursing with desires, the other aspect feels drawn to images mixing kinds or showing in the very same place and at the very same time a whale and a butterfly, a circle and a triangle. Socrates presses his interlocutors to agree the number-trusting aspect must control the desiring aspect. Perhaps, as desirous, the soul never can leave the Platonic cave's shadows and step into the sun's light. In stepping toward the light, the desirous aspect of the soul would lose distinction, reluctantly becoming orderly and numerable. If there is any shadow, there must be some light. What if light were to relax and let be?
If the commonplace that "writing takes courage" has settled into a cliché, Florian undoes that cliché altogether. In her book, desireful beings speak, despite the pressures toward their silencing yet in open awareness of silence. Their ways with words Socrates would have deep and wonderful trouble countenancing. Florian freely mixes genres and invites readers toward imaginal spaces where want calls with fine urgency. Images improbable in nature find welcome. On Wonderland & Waste includes image collages by Alexis Anne Mackenzie. In response to each of Florian's texts, Mackenzie created a collage. A given text's collage appears as a color reproduction on the page across from the text's title page. Students of mine have made a point of mentioning that all the collages (except bluebird's) feature the image of a woman.
If tragedy in the Aristotelian sense involves the expiation of an excess, say of passion, then the term "tragic" would not quite describe On Wonderland & Waste. Rather, the book crosses the elegiac with the ecstatic. The ampersand in the book's title gets the reading eye quickly from Wonderland to Waste while adroitly insisting on the one as much as on the other: a wonderland thoroughly a waste, a wasteland thoroughly a wonder.
Review by Robert Savino Oventile