Friday Column: Discursive Polymaths

With the passing of Ryszard Kapuscinski, I thought is a good time to look at writers who have pushed the boundaries of literary nonfiction. Whereas most of Kapuscinski’s work dealt with journalistic matters, the work of these three polymaths is difficult to categorize because with each new book they seem to take on entirely new territories.

coverThe first one is Lawrence Weschler, whose most recent book, Everything that Rises: A Book of Convergences was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism. This book is a fine example of how Weschler stamps out new territories for himself–in it, he takes unlikely things, like photos of Slobodan Milosevic and Newt Gingrich, or the color patters at Ground Zero in New York and those on the American flag, or one of the first photos taken on the moon and Abstract Impressionist art, and shows how they’re connected. If that’s all he did, this would just be a clever parlor trick, but then accompanying each convergence is a short essay thinking about what this can tell us about art, life, politics, whatever. The whole idea undergirding this book is that culture is a system that’s continually talking to itself, and that these convergences are not just funny coincidences, but evidence of the existence of this closed system.

Weschler seems to have an uncanny ability to make connections, so it’s no surprise that he would write a book like this. (See, for instance, this essay in the Virginia Quarterly Review.) I once heard him talk, and he discussed his method–he takes several notebooks’ worth of notes, then sits down and retypes it all, categorizing and associating along the way. Only when this long, painful process is finished does he feel prepared to begin writing.

But I can’t argue with the results. Before Everything that Rises was Vermeer in Bosnia, the collection of essays that introduced me to this writer. In the title essay, Weschler makes another one of his convergences (this time Vermeer to the Bosnian war). He also does an excellent 100-page bio of Roman Polanski, a feature on Art Spigelman (written as Maus was becoming hot), a brilliant look at the Polaroid photo-mosaics of David Hockney, and a profile of a man slowly looking his body to Parkinson’s disease who uses his affliction to make furniture/sculptures tuned to within a thousandth of an inch. All this and we’ve still half the book left.

Of course, there’s more. There’s his book on the Museum of Jurrasic Technology, a little hole in the wall in Los Angeles that turn into a museum with Borgesian exhibits where you can’t tell what’s true and what’s fake. From the review in The New York Times:

As Mr. Weschler’s narrative progresses, it becomes more and more apparent that, as an artifact, "Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder" resembles the museum it chronicles. About halfway through, we begin to get asterisked endnotes, which then become more and more elaborate, as if the profusion of interesting factual and mythical detail can’t be made to fit within the linear constraints of a straightforward essay. The book is like one of those false-bottomed conjurer’s boxes, for instead of one ending it has four: the last words of Mr. Weschler’s own narrative, followed by 35 pages of notes, succeeded by an epigraph from Italo Calvino and a lengthy acknowledgments-and-sources section, which, given the source-seeking tenor of the whole endeavor, is almost as important as the essay itself. And though the narrative concludes by sending us out into the world ("So, go figure" are its final words), the last words we get from Mr. Weschler tend the other way. "I resolved not to delve any further into the stuff about urine and grandmothers."

Then there’s his book on James Stephen George Boggs, a man who is not a con artist, but a just plain artist who reproduces money by hand, and then "spends" it by bartering with storekeepers to see what they will give him for it. The implications astound, and so does Weschler, who still has more books in his backlist. If you’re interested in this fine writer, here’s a couple of interviews to see what he’s like.

coverUsually thought of as a travel writer, Jonathan Raban doesn’t range quite as far as Weschler does, but he does manage to pack a lot in to that travel moniker. Like Weschler, Raban is good with connections, and in Passage to Juneau, his account of sailing–alone–from Seattle to Juneau he makes some good ones. Here’s one Michael Gorra pointed out in a review that’s well worth reading:

Raban’s comparison between the Indians’ conception of the ocean as a ”place,” a ”mobile surface full of portents, clues and meanings,” and the white sailors’ sense of it as mere ”empty space” deserves to become standard.

I agree that Raban brings in a lot of interesting material and makes good connections, but I also like this book because while Raban is discussing matters of the sublime and Pacific Northwest Indians’ ideas of nature he also gets across the idea of what it feels like to be a traveler in a foreign land. Although Raban must be a pretty good seaman, he’s not a great one by far, and I felt his tension at being faced with the wild. Moreover, I felt his displacement while sailing through Canadian waters or trying to fit in at a sailors’ hangout on some Godforsaken stretch of coast. I read a large part of this book while traveling through Spain, and Raban’s sensations as a traveler helped me define mine, his words both a comfort and a completion.

This wide-ranging polymath seems an ideal person to take advantage of travel writing’s baggy nature. As Raban himself wrote about the genre, travel writing is ”a notoriously raffish open house where very different genres are likely to end up in the same bed. It accommodates the private diary, the essay, the short story, the prose poem, the rough note and polished table talk with indiscriminate hospitality. It freely mixes narrative and discursive writing.” Among the books Raban has packed these and more into are Old Glory, his account (then as a Brit) of sailing down the Mississippi and Hunting Mister Heartbreak where he sailed from Britain to Key West on a trans-Atlantic freighter.

And then there’s Bad Land, probably his least travel-like book and possibly his most original.. In it he ranges over the land where a number of vanished farm communities once existed in Montana. Throughout, Raban thinks about the meanings of settling the West. It’s a book that in some ways brings to mind Rebecca Solnit’s Savage Dreams, where she ranges over the American West, linking the sublime terror of atomic testing in the Nevada desert with the sublime beauty of Yosemite. You can find out more about Raban at this Powell’s interview.

coverThe last author I’d like to talk about here is Geoff Dyer. If Weschler is the journalist of the list and Raban is the traveler, then Dyer is our scholar-philosopher. Dyer’s most recent book, The Ongoing Moment, might one day be held alongside Susan Sontag’s On Photography as a classic of ph otography criticism. Like Weschler’s and Raban’s works, it is a book very concerned with connections–Dyer posits 20th-century photography as one big discussion, where the photos of Lewis Hind are then responded to by those of Alfred Steiglitz who then is quoted by Paul Strand whose work is then in conversation with that of Garry Winogrand and so on. The idea that knowingly or not, photographers are constantly referencing one another forms the backbone of this book as Dyer gives excellent readings of the work of 15 photographers or so.

Dyer also seems obsessed with following his own self-made categories throughout the 20th century. As Sean O’Hagan writes in The Observer,

Rather than weigh up the work of selected photographers from the last century as an academic might do, Dyer has opted, instead, to look at certain subjects common to all the photographers he admires: benches, roads, doors, blind people, hats, fences, streets. His task is to try to define the differing styles and sensibilities that make those subjects appear both definably similar and infinitely different.

The result is a quirky, personal book about photography that is nonetheless terribly erudite and continually fascinating.

Dyer has a number of other tricks up his sleeve. His Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D.H. Lawrence is known as the best book about not writing a book ever written. Dyer can’t write his book, so instead he starts traveling the world to favorite Lawrence haunts (brilliantly managing to get his publisher to pay for it all). The result has gained status as akin to Julian Barnes’s excellent Flaubert’s Parrot, or, if you like, a deeper, smarter How Proust Can Change Your Life.

Another book of Dyer’s which finds him writing essays about places he visits is Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It. As the Complete Review summarizes,

Yoga is a book about being there — anywhere — and yet the different locales fade almost to insignificance, left finally only as a blurry (if occasionally vivid) sort of background. Dyer understands as much, trying to explain in a brief introduction what the book is:

It’s about places where things happened or didn’t happen (…..) In a way they’re all the same place — the same landscape — because the person these things happened to was the same person who in turn is the sum of all the things that happened or didn’t happen in these and other places.

Many authors place themselves as much in the fore of their accounts as Dyer does, but Dyer’s self imposes itself differently on his narratives. It’s an odd skin he’s stuck in, and he can never quite get out of it. He knows as much, and he accepts it; one might even say, were it not so inapposite, that he revels in it.

What does this book have to do with yoga? As with Dyer, it’s always hard to say for sure, but I think it has to do with the idea that the more he travels the more he stays in the same place, because with each place he visits he’s not finding a new place, but more of himself. It’s as though his travels are his form of yoga. So, as usual, no matter what the place or topic, we find Dyer taking center-stage, but it’s okay because he’s usually so interesting to watch.

Although Weschler and Raban aren’t so obviously in the center of their own works as Dyer is, I think that their books are also very dependent on their presence. What these three authors (four if you count Solnit, who’s also well worth reading) have in common is that they bring together large and disparate bodies of information through their lives or their travels or their subjects. I think this is why the work of these three authors appeals to me so–their books are focused on a certain topic, giving them narrative heft and intimacy, and yet they’re so discursive that I can sit back and revel in all the brilliant connections these authors make, incidentally, picking up a strange array of interesting facts along the way (something I always enjoy). There’s something about me that just loves to watch an author make an extended series of connections–sort of like a jazz musician pounding out a series of riffs–it’s as much of an aesthetic pleasure as an intellectual one.

Which brings me back to the book we started with–Weschler’s book on connections, Everything that Rises. In it he tries to codify his obsession with connections, to not only pursue them throughout history and culture but to untangle why he finds them to be such a rich source of ideas and prose. Perhaps Wescheler’s book, then, is a good emblem for the mode of writing epitomized by these authors that dive into the maelstrom of information and, almost impossibly, pull out rich threads of meaning. Although I don’t think their brand of writing is new, I do think that as information multiplies ever faster their brand of writing has grown more valuable, and possibly more rare.



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Great list — I love this sort of writing too, and I adored Solnit’s book Wanderlust. I’m going to read Weschler soon, and I’ll be sure to check out the others too.

Hi, thanks for this. I’m making notes on some of the titles to check out.

In describing his process, Weschler left out one very weird detail he told his class a couple years. After the notebooks are done, but before the writing begins, he plays with wooden blocks. Then, somehow, the magic happens. I kid you not.

I will buy anything Weschler or Solnit writes, and Jonathan Raban is close to that status for me. But I don’t know Geoff Dyer at all, so clearly I will have to check him out. Thanks much.

Interesting. Also another brilliant book to share with you: China and the new world order: how entrepreneurship, globalization, and borderless business are reshaping China and the world, by the provocative Chinese reporter George Zhibin Gu. Very interesting.

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