When the going gets tough, are you one of the tough that gets going? … Do you have any ballet training, and if not, would you like some? Have you ever seen Newton’s Optiks?The sport of football, like the item itself, is a wobbly, ugly thing that, at times, can be hard to get a grip on and is, ultimately, hollow at its core. However, despite its aesthetic ungainliness, both are capable of precise, even elegant, albeit fleeting, awe. Such moments await the University of Alabama football team this week as they begin spring practice.
-- Padgett Powell, The Interrogative Mood: A Novel? p. 101
The Crimson Tide looks to replace experience with talent on defense and not all that much on offense. A Heisman-winning tailback, a senior quarterback-receiver combo, and an experienced line should salve any growing pains of the new starters on defense. In truth, the minds in Vegas have plotted Alabama as their favorite to win next year’s championship, just as they had done for Florida (and most national championship teams) prior. The oddsmaker’s job, though, is not to prophesy, but to take your money.
Although I admit the evidence is mounting, I try not to be nihilist. Perhaps my caveat is that, if I do believe in nothing, I actively believe it. I’m no cynic, at least. The process, to borrow a term, is more important than the result. Two recent endeavors brought this to bear.
The first is Padgett Powell’s novel The Interrogative Mood, which is a slender volume containing not a sentence outside the copyright page that doesn’t end with a question mark. I am that sort of prickly reader who, upon reading a new book, begins shuffling through the library of past books read to decide upon what shelf the new one properly belongs. This tic one attributes to the hardwiring of one’s mind under one’s education of the Modernist focus.
The immediate, and lesser helpful, colleague of this book that sprang to mind was Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, merely due to functional necessity. A novel of questions, of course, would have to include the second person address. However, coincidence is all this is, as Powell’s novel is insistently a first-person narrative with two principal characters: questioner and interviewee. Who classifies as protagonist or antagonist may be, pardon the pun, an open question.
And that led me to another comparison: David Markson’s recent string of novels, all written in a staccato attack of fragments, dialogue, quotations, and trivia. Some of the books contain more white space than text. Some even include a protagonist named “Author” or “Protagonist.” The Markson novels in this style share a cold refinement, a sense of something grand having been shattered and now we watch the pieces drift apart like ice floes.
Powell’s novel, however, clusters his questions into standard paragraphs. A small difference, perhaps even one determined by the price of paper, but not one without consequence. Huddled together, each group of questions strives for warmth, maybe intimacy, and often earns it. Page by page, question by question, readers will be brought into the work. Some will question what they are reading or why, while others, like the book itself, will question how we read, recognizing that there are no answers other than the lack of answers. It is an engrossing little trap with a devious wit as bait.
How we perceive our world is central to the art of Ryan and Trevor Oakes, identical twins who introduce viewers to a new way of seeing how they see. Using a tripod-mounted easel and swiveled skull harness, the twins recreate in two dimensions the brain’s mediating of our optic nerves. Lawrence Weschler sees in their work the “most original breakthroughs in the rendering of visual space” since Renaissance artists relied on the camera obscura.
The lack of a meaningful subject likely bothers many people. It’s why some see Christ’s face in wood grains or the Virgin Mary in burnt toast. It’s also why we look for meaning in the damnedest places, be it a novel, a painting, or a football team. And no matter what we find, it’s that we keep looking that matters most. It’ll be a long off season, friends.