Thursday
Jul142011

Vanishing Point:
Not a Memoir

By Ander Monson



Graywolf Press
March 2010
208 pages
978-1555975548

 

Reviewed by Stacy Patton


 

Ander Monson's Vanishing Point: Not a Memoir, published by Graywolf Press, is a more than a book. It is an experiment in the formal limits of text and the possibilities for the book as both an artifact and an idea. It's likely to get you thinking, whoever you are—a writer, a gamer, a web designer, a reader, a human being. It is powerful and complex and a whole lot of fucking fun.

Monson himself graces both the front and the back of my copy of this book. On the cover he's a lumpy wild-haired silhouette in some kind of lighted tunnel. A drainage pipe, maybe—he appears to be standing ankle-deep in a narrow stream of murky water. The text, the pipe, and the light in the image all converge on Monson's head: a vanishing point, if you will. It's an interesting-enough cover image, but it is also relatively upstaged by Monson's author photo on the back of the book. The author photo is the most arresting thing on the book's cover. It told me immediately that Monson is not a writer interested in convention. Or that he's interested in it only to the extent that it allows him to flout it. First off, this is no mock-serious moody black and white portrait. It's a color photograph, and not just color, but eye-popping color. Monson, bearded and rosy, wears a screaming green shirt in front of a glowing orange backdrop. The photographer has lit him brightly—from both front and back, rendering Monson's reddish hair as a kind of wild halo around his head. Pow! Marion Ettlinger this is not. And consistent with the rest of the book, it invites you to reassess your expectations.

Vanishing Point has a website that goes along with it. The opening pages of the printed book, titled "How-To", offers an explanation of how the book and the website are meant to go together:

This book is a book. It is fixed in time, in space, in print, an artifact. Each of these essays is a kind of frozen thinking, a virtual I that you get to inhabit for a little while. Each is a cheapo virtual reality. Each is my brain, or a constructed simulacrum. The real brain, of course, is flux, motion, synapses connecting and reconnecting and thinking exploding everywhere.... Each dagger indicates an instance of redirect, a bubbling-over instance, where, for one of many reasons, I have more information, a further reflection, more thinking on the subject that has either gone on past the boundaries of the object, the fixity of the book, or is continuing to evolve. Okay, so I have some footnotes and a few endnotes, and some marginalia, but those are in the book. The daggers sometimes lead to things that exceed the capacity of footnotes. Some of them have video. Some images. Some evolving text. I like the web.

A partial list of daggered words that will lead to additional essays on the website, and which are crucial to understanding what Monson is up to here: keyboarding, society, artificially, taste, days, museum, mix, book, yearbook, space, place, selves, fear, ball, city, mother, consciousness. Monson is grappling with ideas in metaphysical, analytical, and deeply personal ways. The essay titled "Transubstantiation" is about Doritos (Monson once worked in a Frito-Lay warehouse) as a kind of communion wafer for our consumer culture. Here's a taste:

Doritos have a delicious and hilarious majesty. Even if I don't love them, I admire them. They are the perfect modern snack, honed by forty-two years of snack-making technology (they debuted in America in 1966 along with the Society* for Creative Anachronism: clearly 1966 was a banner year for strange Americana), ideally salty, artificially flavored, and addictive as anything I can conceive of that is permitted by law, and possibly more addictive than a number of narcotics. (In fact, the two often go together.)

Monson's playfulness with form permeates the printed book. There are daggers and asterisks, and textual manipulations that show an awareness of the page as a place where words reside, where their arrangement within the series of white paper rectangles is its own kind of communication.  In "Exteriority" the margins of the essay extend so close to the page edges that the final letters of each line are truncated—legible, but only just. "Assembloir" is a collage of excerpts from about 85 other memoirs, broken into three parts over the course of the book: "Disclaimer", "On Significance", and "Ending Meditation". My favorite of these formal essays is "Solipsism," which begins with 1003 instances of the single-word sentence:  "Me."

Monson uses this repetition to grapple with how the act of writing—the physical, technological and mechanical process of it—has an intimate relationship with what we are trying to say:

...another keystroke for each instance2—would have meant significantly more in 1895 than it does today. Physically speaking, the work required to generate the instances above on a manual typewriter, where you'd have to press each key hard enough to get the system of levers moving the type bar through and inked ribbon to hit the paper, was far greater than the work it required to generate this page on a computer.

The essay moves from keyboarding to typewriting to typesetting via letterpress, illustrating the work—that assertion of self—each process requires of its writer and implies for its readers. He arrives at the question: "And what does writing consist of, exactly?" The essay was written specifically for the web, but was later picked up by The Pinch, which published it in print with "some serious design elements that make for a very interesting and provocative read." From there, the essay was selected for inclusion in the Best American Essays series, and then later within Vanishing Point itself. Each successive version references the prior versions, and therefore the meaning of the prior versions is continually in flux. Monson asks: "Which is the definitive 'publication'? Does the devotion of more physical resources to the production of the artifact make it more valid or less? At the least it offers another layer of meaning and transformation to consider, which is fun." So "Solipsism" manages to be both repeatedly frozen and continually malleable—the version included in Vanishing Point contains sidebars, footnotes, daggered references and finally, a kind of closing textual appendage in which each line is shorter than the one before it. This short paragraph is connected by a slanted line to the final lines of the final footnote of the essay, and it reads:

Out, always out: My penchant is for opening,
not closing, sentences (and parentheses—
and em dashes, so that this I can spawn
or take on other Is, to expand toward
the size of the big starry X that is
whatever is coming after this,
but not have to reduce back
to the previous state, to
vanish back into its
once and former
singularity...

This final paragraph speaks of expansion even as the lines of text that comprise it dwindle to one word: "singularity..." The dissonance between text and meaning highlights one of the primary struggles of the book—how the continual expansion of textual possibilities affects the essay, the book that contains it, the websites that reference them both, and the writer who, using all of these, endeavors to engage us in his self-expression. Expression that continually pushes out and yet emerges from a singular point—a consciousness expanding beyond the confines of the page, the screen, and the self.

Although I've surfed the website and read every printed page of Vanishing Point at least twice (and many of them several times over), I feel like I haven't really finished it. I know I haven't finished with it, as it's a book that rewards obsessive rereading, but even today as I sat down to finish this review I discovered a link from "Solipsism" to a webpage I'd not yet seen, filled with links to words like "problems", "repercussions", and "secrets". And so it goes...