Robyn Maree Pickens
This Is Not a Pipe by Tara Black (Victoria University Press, 2020), 160pp., $28; Timelights by Martin Edmond (Lasavia Publishing, 2020), 196pp., $37.86
Before I read This Is Not a Pipe by Pōneke-based comic-maker Tara Black and Timelights by Aotearoa-born, Sydney-based writer Martin Edmond, I was reading literary criticism/affect theory on how to ‘read’ texts. ‘Read’ in this context is best described as reading with the intent to critique, to interpret, to analyse. These texts on reading debate different methodological approaches to criticism, interpretation and analysis, such as suspicious or paranoid reading and reparative reading elaborated by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (2003). In highly simplified terms, suspicious reading assumes a position of mastery, and reparative reading one of pleasure. The apparent binary between the two approaches, which Sedgwick nuanced to hold ambiguity, has nevertheless obtained in subsequent theoretical discussions as either ‘for’ or ‘against’ positions, or has been the subject of a recuperative oscillation between the two.
Why am I including this here? It is, I hope, relevant to the discussion of Black’s and Edmond’s books on several accounts. There is no hierarchy of reasons, but one that immediately anchors a direct reference to one of the books—Black’s—is meta: by incorporating an interrogation of critique in the context of critique I echo Black’s meta commentary of storytelling about storytelling and narrative about narrative in This Is Not a Pipe. This echo is not intended as a conceit or gimmick, but is an attempt to stylistically enact Tyler Bradway’s injunction to meet texts ‘on their own ground’ (2017, vi). Companionably, I am incorporating myself by way of anecdote and first-person pronouns to partly reciprocate the voice of intimate disclosure deployed by Edmond in Timelights—a voice I would generally use sparingly in a review context.
What does meeting the text on its own ground signal by way of an interrogation of critique? On the one hand such a meeting indicates an orientation towards a reparative reading. But on the other hand, and as cosy as this sounds, such an approach seemingly requires of the reader/me false or fugitive neutrality. What might I have to discard or pull on in order to read the texts on their own grounds? Regardless, I am interested in the experiment to both trouble the position of the critic/reviewer, and to a lesser extent, whether, given the parameters provided by Landfall, a reparative reading is even possible.
It will be evident that I have no mastery of, or over, Black’s and Edmond’s texts, but to be clear, this is not a position I seek—a statement that aligns with a rejection of suspicious reading. However, in the pursuit of an equitable meeting in which I read with the authors and read with pleasure, I will inevitably fail to produce a fully reparative reading. Another way to say some of the above is that critique can be difficult or, more accurately, critique involving negative affect is one I find personally difficult.
As I sit here typing, I imagine having a metal pole inserted through my forearms in such a way that they are held together as if I were riding a scooter. The ends of the pole not only constrain my arms, but stick out on both sides, and, as these are open wounds, blood oozes. I could not wear any of the clothes I am wearing and typing would difficult, if not painful. I imagine these scenarios because the female protagonist of Black’s book, Beth, has such a pole through her arms. ‘It is not a metaphor,’ she writes on the opening page, and asserts repeatedly throughout the text and visual illustrations of the graphic novel. However, if I meet the author, Black, on her own ground, and follow the injunction of the book’s title, This Is Not a Pipe, I am in fact being invited to make a suspicious reading: to take note of the treachery of images (an alternate title for René Magritte’s famous painting of the same title ). To really meet the author on her text’s ground, however, I am meant to occupy two positions simultaneously. I am asked to suspend disbelief and accept the physicality of the pole and at the same time accede to the text’s destabilising effects of the treachery of representation. It is a pole. It is not a pole. If it is not a pole, what is it? The tension between these two, ahem, poles, the continual instability, a more than likely unreliable narrator: all this is precisely the precarious narrative space that the reader is pressed to inhabit.
This tension, complexity and instability is amplified by the layers of narrative spaces and formal styles (plural). The first layer comprises Beth and her misanthropic boyfriend Kenneth in graphic novel format. Of their mostly abject interactions, this narrative generates Kenneth’s decision to develop a new religion centred on narrative as a god, and takes the form of a series of intervening prose sections titled ‘KenNarrate: Welcome to the Church of Narrative’. The book therefore begins by alternating between Beth and Kenneth depicted in comic-strip style and Kenneth’s blog entries for his new church of narratology. Each blog entry covers an aspect of narrative theory such as prolepsis (anticipates the future—incidentally a hallmark of suspicious reading), narrative conflict, point of view and extended cognition. These aspects manifest in the Beth and Kenneth graphic novel sequences. To take one frequently occurring aspect, ‘conflict’, the ever-pleasant Kenneth remarks, ‘You’re not special just because you’re in pain.’ In such instances it seems evident that the ‘pole’ is Kenneth—yet Beth is in physical pain due to the very real pole depicted in the illustrations.
The two modes of graphic novel and blog prose mutate into a third narrative space in the form of a comic-strip Kenneth who asks Beth to contribute to the blog. Perhaps as a mode of extended cognition, the interactions between the two otter-like dog protagonists of Beth’s comic strip exhibit a degree of amicable affection that almost feels perverse when compared to the abjection of Beth and her pole, and Beth in her relationship with Kenneth. Is this narrative space the one the pole dreams of? Beth, however, is ‘stuck’, and as readers we are invited to be stuck with her until the pole is ruptured and all the bugs tethered to balloons escape.
If the pole in Black’s graphic novel functions as a conceptual, narrative and affective pivot, the window in Edmond’s Timelights has a similar agency. Edmond’s book is structured as a series of short acts of prose remembrance accompanied by a photo of which various windows are by far the most dominant image. At this juncture you may like to throw out a thread of association between the comic-strip squares in Black’s text and Edmond’s windows. Perhaps you query the extent to which each visual box functions to variously reveal and obscure. In a pre-emptive, slightly suspicious act, we may consider whether Edmond deploys the window to open onto the text, or to suggest that these low-resolution images of windows operate more like a fugue. This in turn may lead you to recall—because Magritte has already been mentioned—the artist’s painting l’état de veille (1958), in which only six curtained, casement windows hover against clouds and hills as the central house has disappeared. If the house represents the impossibility of fixed, accurate memory, are windows the openings we hold on to? Proust and windows may also be relevant here.
These non-masterful, multi-pronoun thoughts relate to two initial observations I made when first engaging with Edmond’s book. The first was that this particular combination of image and text felt like a hardcopy, long-form version of Instagram, which the author may allude to in his opening description of Timelights: ‘A book of photographs with extended captions …’1. After uploading a photo on Instagram, the user is invited to write a caption. Having recently undergone an unexpected seduction at the hands of this platform (one of sharp visual clarity), I found the low-resolution of the printed images, in this edition of Timelights at least, a bit of a shock. Was this an unfair observation or comparison though, I wondered? The second observation concerned the writing itself, which I described earlier as ‘intimate disclosure’. I meant this on two levels: Edmond does write about intimate moments in his life, such as his relationship with his partner’s mother, but (and this is the second level) with a degree of detail that feels like riding Hokusai’s wave all the way into shore and to its extended dissipation—to draw on a subject (Hokusai) of Edmond’s text.
To meet the author on his own ground I swam around in plenitude tentatively at first, being more accustomed to elision or circumspection. I know why the author chooses not to clean his blinds. Of course, this may or may not be an operative metaphor. Are these observations on the memories that stick? Whether blinds to which memories adhere or binds (Black’s pole) that generate multiple layers of storytelling, each book offers a distinct take on narrative style.
- Martin Edmond, ‘Future Histories’, Blog post, 1 June 2020: https://mjedmo.wordpress.com/page/2/
ROBYN MAREE PICKENS is an art writer, poet, and a critical/creative PhD candidate in ecological aesthetics at the Te Whare Wānanga o Ōtākou in Ōtepoti.