Form and Function in Jess Stoner’s “I Have Blinded Myself Writing This”
Reading Books While Burping My Baby #6
Form and Function in
I Have Blinded Myself Writing This
[dropcap]A[/dropcap]t this point in my life as a father, now more than ever, I’ve come to appreciate functionality.
For the Memorial Day weekend, we packed up Baby Jackson (four and a half months old) and our slobbery/hyper Labrador Retriever Barney and headed down to the Gulf Coast to visit my parents. A few years ago, this was an easy trip: toss some clothes into a duffel bag, stop at 7-Eleven for a Diet Coke, and hit the road. But with a family of four (yes, the dog is included in that number), the journey is now an epic affair, and my Hyundai Santa Fe is loaded as tight as a moving truck, every bag shoved into place, the Baby Bumbo resting atop the disassembled Baby Bouncy, which rests upside-down atop the folded-up stroller, which cannot move because my wife’s suitcase is pressed against the baby’s weekend bag which is pressed against the diaper bag which is all squashed under the weight of my own bag and the dog’s bag of indestructible rubber play-toys.
Wait, no. My vehicle is not just a moving truck. When I load and unload, it feels like I’ve just shopped at IKEA, with those perfectly constructed boxes that take up no more space than is absolutely necessary to store the Frurtskangh that you just bought. Maximizing every square centimeter of space, the Hyundai cursing me with each new item shoved into place.
So I’ve come to love those items whose designs understand the lifestyle of parents, those items that are not just easily packed, but are also easily accessible or usable. I grunt and scowl when I try to pop the lid off a bottle of formula, for instance, and cannot do so with just one hand (the other, of course, being occupied by a screaming-hungry baby). I curse the Baby Bumbo because it cannot be carried without awkwardness, and praise the Baby Bouncy because I can lift it easily with just one hand and move it around the house and place it wherever I need it to go, wherever I need the baby to sit.
Form and function: for every form, there must a function be. It’s a concept that you appreciate the most when you are in dire need of function. And as a parent, you are always in dire need of easy functionality.
As a reader and a writer, too, I’ve always been interested in the idea of form and function, from the most basic of styles, techniques and strategies to the most complex. In my Fiction Writing class, I lecture about skyscraper design, the TransAmerica Pyramid in San Francisco built for earthquakes and the Sears Tower in Chicago built for howling winds, and I discuss how every choice (first-person narration, choice of scenes, verb tense of narration) should serve a purpose for the author’s story. On my personal blog, I’ve written extensively on the form of “mixed-media fiction,” work that moves beyond the single medium of traditional text-based narration to include or incorporate (at its most basic) other textual forms, such as letters or newspaper articles or footnotes or appendices, or (at its most complicated and/or daring) images within the greater textual narrative, from photographs to comic panels to diagrams to doodles. The most ambitious mixed-media fiction is likely unprintable, and could potentially move the reader into other mediums that wouldn’t even fit on the page: web sites, paintings, videos, sculptures, sidewalk graffiti…
But with endless artistic possibilities, there’s also the potential for decadence and over-indulgence, an “experimental” writer incorporating a short film into his short story just…because. You know, ’cause it would be cool? Or how about a page with scratch ‘n sniff stickers? No real function to the form, other than the writer hoping that the gimmick will bring him/her more attention, more readers, more Facebook likes, even if the final product is disjointed and empty, and would have been better served without that inserted short film or scratch ‘n sniff sticker. We see it all the time with Hollywood blockbusters, don’t we? Over-indulgent CGI sequences that do nothing to better the story, or the characters, or even the drama? (Or how about the current 3-D craze?)
Anyway. These ideas have been a constant source of fascination for me, especially as the world of literature embraces not just new technologies, but a new generation of writers eager to explore those new possibilities. And it’s been my hope that the results will be both exciting, and functional (in other words, the choices will be smart, and will have a purpose). Which brings me to the talented young writer, Jess Stoner, and her book I Have Blinded Myself Writing This.
I found Stoner’s book—we’ll call it a novel, though the term “novel” might bring the wrong image to mind—while drifting between tables at AWP in Chicago. The book comes from Aaron Burch’s impressively creative small-press Short Flight/ Long Drive Books, which has published a number of books whose designs play upon the material: a travel narrative published in a book that looks like a passport, for instance, another book published to look like a Bible, and in Jess Stoner’s case, a book published to look like a composition notebook, complete with the image of peeling tape on the binding, and folds in the cover. I write a comic structured as a home décor catalogue, so how could I not like this publisher, and this book?
And here’s the better news: the book does not simply use the cover as a sort of thematic representation of the content inside, but actually continues the theme of a notebook (to some extent), with the narrator discussing the process and the purpose behind the writing, and incorporating doodles and diagrams and crossed-out words and short margin notes. Some pages are filled tight with un-indented text, while other pages are blank, or contain a single word or sentence. The reader is not meant to treat this like a traditional narrative. This is a book that has created its own rules. Upon first glance at the contents, I could make a comparison to Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, a book structured as a collection of artifacts and manuscripts rather than a straightforward novel. House of Leaves does offer one complete story, traveling along the “rising action” dramatic story arc, delivering us to a resolution; it is traditional in that regard, but the journey relies upon multiple mediums and forms—poems, comics, academic papers, news reports—to get us there.
I Have Blinded Myself Writing This is also one complete story, and we begin with traditional text that reads:
“We have suffered. My mother and I. From an affliction. Our blood needs our brains. Memories compelled by cuts seal wounds. If the past you keep with you in the present disappeared with a bruise. Then you would understand.”
As you can see, the text in this novel almost feels like prose poetry, but it is standard narrative text nonetheless; in the ensuing pages, however, the book incorporates a footnote, then a list, then a doodle, then a sketched-out diagram. And it becomes clear that Stoner is truly maximizing the form of the composition notebook to tell her story, taking advantage of every opportunity she can.
Here’s the good news, too, from the perspective of a parent who demands functionality of both his baby’s toys and his mixed-media fiction: throughout the early pages of I Have Blinded Myself Writing This, the incorporated forms and graphics all do seem to serve a real purpose for the story and for the reader. This is a book narrated by a woman with a condition called “damnatio memoriae,” a condition which is explained in a footnote, as in a high school or college textbook: “First-degree cuts. These remove a memory. But not every memory.” When we get a list included in the novel just a few short pages later, it also serves the vital function of showing us exactly how “damnatio memoriae” does or does not affect the narrator’s everyday: “Things I Haven’t Forgotten,” the list is titled, and it includes some details that feel unimportant (“That Salisbury steak is minced beef shaped to look like a steak”) above and below other details that the narrator will continue to build upon through the duration of the book (“Our mother. Ben. Me.” and “I have a daughter.”). And a few pages later, the book uses a diagram to show us the science behind “damnatio memoriae,” with the narrator explaining a series of steps that lead to the memory loss: “When my skin breaks a brief constriction of vessels reduces blood flow to the wound, alerts my brain it must have a memory to activate platelets to form a clot to block the bleeding vessels…My nervous system removes one memory for each breach of epidermis…In my brain the spot once occupied by this speck of past droops empty.”
Forget that the condition is “fantastical,” as even the narrator admits. A good author will make us believe just about anything, and there was no point in Stoner’s novel where I began to question the condition. Perhaps that is because we’re dealing with a first-person narrator who—whether the condition exists or not—believes it herself. She organizes her life around the condition, and so it only makes sense that her record (the book) is framed by “damnatio memoriae,” that it explains to readers how she copes and what she fears and what she hopes will happen to her family.
From concept alone, and from its opening pages, I Have Blinded Myself Writing This is a near-perfect example of the best kind of mixed-media fiction: a narrative where form has function, a narrative that cannot be shrugged off as “experimental” because the word “experimental” would imply that the author doesn’t know what she’s doing.
Of course, I’ll also admit: as a new father, this book was not easy for me to sink into. In fact, I actually had to re-start the book several times; I’d get five pages into it before some baby-related task required that I put it down, and by the time I returned to it, I had no idea what was happening; I’d fallen out of the narrative entirely. All of that stuff I wrote above, about how the book sets up the premise so expertly? Well, just because it’s expert doesn’t mean it’s easy on the reader. This book demands your time and your focus. Like any affecting first-person narrative, you do find yourself immersed in the voice and moving almost hypnotically from page to page, but don’t mistake the sometimes-quick flipping of pages (i.e. one word on a page, or a single image on a page) for a Dan Brown-style reading experience. Outside distractions can ruin the stream of consciousness here.
And despite my praise of the form and function, I do have some criticism of Stoner’s book, also. While I didn’t question the premise of “damnatio memoriae,” there were moments when the poetry of the first-person narration worked against the book’s effectiveness. Is this a well-written book? Absolutely. But is the voice sometimes too well-written, too clever, too “literary” (focused on being poetic), for the woman who is supposed to actually be narrating her story? A first-person voice is a tricky thing for writers, after all. We want to craft believable protagonists, but if we actually gave our narrators the most 100% accurate voice we possibly could, our books would be unreadable. The author has to impose onto the narrator his/her knowledge of story structure and pacing and figurative language and (perhaps) sentence structure and paragraph structure and mechanics. If Raymond Carver’s characters were to narrate their stories from an absolutely accurate voice, do you think they would have employed minimalism? Hell, if the characters actually wrote their own stories without the author’s help, every first-person story in the world would feel like a bad blog.
So I don’t expect the author to disappear entirely. But the poetic styling of I Have Blinded Myself Writing This sometimes reminded me that there was an author; they sometimes sounded less like a woman who wanted to record her thoughts, or make sense of her life, or speak to her daughter, and more like a poet who wanted to create something beautiful and impressive on the page. It was beautiful and impressive. But beauty and impressiveness comes at a cost. Take this quick line, which is its own page somewhere in the center of the book (there are no page numbers): “If only a moon could flood my memory, polish it, burn it into my colon, someplace that’s less required than my mind.” It’s an interesting line, one that requires us to stop and picture and ponder…but is it true to the narrator who has a real mission as she writes, who wants the reader to understand her life, not be impressed by her skill with metaphor? And the book’s unique punctuation for dialogue, with brackets used in place of quotation marks: “[Did you do anything stupid while I was gone?]” Does this feel like the narrator, or does this feel like the hand of the author?
Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, another stunning example of a mixed-media novel, also utilizes a first-person narrator with a condition that informs the voice. The boy at the center of Haddon’s novel lives with autism, and so the book jolts us from idea to idea, never letting us settle and focus and move in a straight line; we go from text to image to text to image, always spinning, and although Haddon is a poet, the prose is restrained enough that the illusion is never lost. If I Have Blinded Myself Writing This has a weak spot, it is that Jess Stoner’s language does not restrain itself and allow us to forget that she is writing it.
In the end, though, Jess Stoner’s novel is indeed a wonderful book, one that I’d recommend without reservation, and one that I hope is just a hint of what’s to come for the author. Part of the problem with mixed-media fiction, I think, is that it is a time-consuming and difficult process to create. If I asked the author how long it took to write the book, and whether her next book will also take a similar form, I can almost guarantee that her response would be preceded by a groan, maybe the word “Whew” paired with a dramatic sigh. I know that novel-writing alone ain’t easy, and the ambition to create a brand-new form…that doesn’t make it any easier. So I’m eager to see what comes next, regardless of form.
But we’re talking about books, remember. Allow me to bring us back to the subject of baby products. Above, I’ve shown you how Jess Stoner created her own brand-new form for her novel, and how she taught us to read from the very first page. So don’t tell me that the people over at Tommee Tippee—yes, the company that has designed a bottle with controlled-drip nipples that are supposedly “closer to nature” (i.e. the baby’s supposed to think he’s sucking on a real nipple)—can’t make a lid that pops off just a little bit easier when a parent has the use of only one hand? Seriously. My son Jackson is only five months old, and he even knows that this is ridiculous. He watches me drop the bottle-tops all the time and spill his formula on the counter top. Oh, and to the makers of the “PeePee TeePee” (if you don’t know what it is, google it): let’s talk about form and function for a second: it’s a funny name for a product, and after your baby pees in your face for the first time, you see the reason behind the invention of something that would cover the area in question and keep the parent’s face dry of urine: but the average penis is not shaped like a pyramid: your product is terrible: back to the drawing board.