Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.
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From Chicago, a story of Europe: the paved prairie as mirror, a glass through which to view the pre-text. To “insist on a plot” would be to err; here we follow the creases that mark the yet-unwritten, though certain characters, like bumpers set in a pinball’s course, aid in randomizing the order of experiences. One: A woman searches for some knowledge of her mother, hires a detective out of her paperback and cinema dreams; Two: A man tells the story of his love in Paris, 1968; Three: Auschwitz, or the Idea of Europe. “I sprouted gills,” one narrator tells us, in May of 1968, when, suddenly, swimming in politics: the “dry land and all the usual creatures—students, cops, judges, booksellers, waiters—had been replaced by their deep-sea analogues: seahorses, sea urchins, sea-snakes, sea-lions. Exactly the same underneath, but our skins were radiant and new. The elements had shifted.”
Corey is concerned with alchemy: Rimbaud’s alchemy of the word; Marx’s alchemy through theory; the camps’ dark change of crystals to gas, families to ash. Bookends of that Idea of Europe, then: a sea under the concrete, smears of millions of humans marring the sky.
The privileged dreamers in the City of Light can recite such pride-puffed mantras as “I take my desires for reality because I believe in the reality of my desires” and they can insist that “without theory there’s no practice” because they confuse the former with the latter just as the reader might confuse words with something more, like a camera, or (worse?) confuse the gaze of the camera with something other, something more. The tourists’ city, Corey reminds us, is not merely a falsehood, but also an ideal, a dream. The tension between realism and dream drives much of this novel, where sections musing on issues of reading and representation are broken by the fights of characters on behalf of such ideas, their weight in history and politics. “We are all German Jews,” says one well-enough-meaning but profoundly unthinking personage, here. It has a nice ring to it, and it is absolutely false. The poet is not an assassin; the camera is not a guillotine. Work does not equal freedom.
Except... Again, that tension, as police crack heads in the street or a pilgrim arrives at the gates of the house of death: “I only saw the little town with its unspellable name, with insensible glum blond people and a hotel with no screens to keep out the blackflies....” What is Auschwitz now, but a series of preconceptions, something known from cinema and books and dreams?
Even the cover calls us to contemplate that tension: a still from Joseph Beuys’s 1974 performance “I Like America and America Likes Me,” where the artist is wrapped in a felt blanket, holding a staff, locked in a room with a coyote. Is this a dream made flesh? An act of alchemy, showing forth some essence, otherwise invisible? An act of self-promoting innovation within a particular economy, making a myth of ego more than anything else? And how do we—the “new readers” Corey’s voices, in these pages, have much to say about; we who construct cut-ups via our viewing habits, who flip pages to build a bricolage—know or experience this event, this happening, except through texts and stills, the YouTube clips, the myths and lectures listened to in youth?
We hold a letter, its creases worn nearly through from years of opening and folding shut again. Yet each reading is a revelation, a shock, a mystery, a challenge. Corey gives this a new jolt, a new charge, in this rich and intensely self-reflective novel.
Official Joshua Corey Web Site
Official Spuyten Duyvil Press Web Site