Wednesday, April 22, 2009

THIS IS WHERE MY LIFE WENT WRONG: Bard Cole's overlapping vistas of nuance, nostalgia, and regret

Like Michael Lesy's WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP, writer Bard Cole's THIS IS WHERE MY LIFE WENT WRONG assembles itself around what seem to be localized, everyday events, providing lists, titles, anecdotes and a wealth of evocative detail to engage its reader in uniquely trippy ways.

The story behind WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP: Lesy found an archive of black and white photos from the town of Black River Falls dating back to the 1890's, arranging these with selected contemporaneous articles from the town's newspaper in book form. Looking at WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP involves trying to make sense of mystery. What the hell happened? Here's an inscrutable face; there a report of famine. An infant died. Was it the blank-eyed baby pictured? You're compelled to make connections between the text and the people who bracket it, animating private movies about them without any verifiable indication of causal relationship, propelled by an ebb and flow of tonal variation. It's a curiously enigmatic read, putting you in touch with your neediness for story, the unavoidable urge to play God, the chronic sense of lack underlying every tightly rigged narrative scenario.

And it's sad; like looking at your grandparents and your parents and the people you love in pictures, knowing they'll be gone at some point—maybe they already are--wondering how a flimsy photo and an assortment of facts will endow any person’s absence with any real, useful sense of presence. THIS IS WHERE MY LIFE WENT WRONG shares some of WISCONSIN’s cinematic sadness, I think, as well as some of the lonely, spartan qualities you find in Willa Cather (one of Cole's favorite authors), the curlicue but angular wit of Edward Gorey (one of his favorite artists), and the weird, wildly associational, voraciously multi-directional tug you experience walking into an eclectically arranged antique shop, a place you might find a war medal, a dented Tuba from a high school marching band, and a crusted wig, all in the same corner.

My mind also immediately goes to THIS IS WHERE MY LIFE WENT WRONG and Cole every time I see ELEPHANT HOUSE: OR, THE HOME OF EDWARD GOREY, a book of black and white photos taken within days of the artist’s death. Like Warhol, Gorey was a voracious collector. Objects, cats, rocks, and sundry curiosities. The arrangements speak volumes without exactly finishing a sentence. The author of ELEPHANT, by way of explaining Gorey’s overstuffed enigma of an abode, could have been talking about THIS IS WHERE MY LIFE WENT WRONG: “Edward loved to 'arrange' things,” he says, and in his hands "pliers became dragons, shears were birds in flight." What could be sadder than a house full of a missing person’s abundance of personal belongings, bereft of their reason for being?

Maybe I’m projecting my own sadness onto Cole’s material. It’s awfully generous that way. Then again, the forgotten tends to elicit a heightened response, part nostalgia, part moving right along—and THIS IS WHERE MY LIFE WENT WRONG, among many other things, is a textured meditation on overlapping grids of memory and history, loss advanced by inexorable accretion. Bard’s sensibility takes in polar points of view, creating a mood, for me, which sits somewhere between wry and wistful, mordant and keenly sensitive. THIS IS WHERE MY LIFE WENT WRONG exemplifies what language can do in and outside of traditional narrative, what a smart, open mind can make out of the unlikely if not the impossible, arranging it all into something more than the mere sum of its parts. Most books lock you in. In some ways, having invited you through its doors, THIS IS WHERE MY LIFE WENT WRONG locks you out, an experience which replicates the tensions between absence and presence it explores. There isn’t a story here, exactly; only a universe of intersecting characters, the great big bustling world on a postage stamp.

THIS IS WHERE MY LIFE WENT WRONG was the 2008 winner of the BLATT Best Novel award. Bard Cole is a contributor to LIFE AS WE SHOW IT: WRITING ON FILM (City Lights, June 2009). The above photo was taken by Charles Van Shaick, a portion of whose glass plates appeared in Wisconsin Death Trip.

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