In an I
By Popahna Brandes
Reviewed by Forrest Roth
The conversation between Socrates and Glaucon from Plato's Republic famously known as the Allegory of the Cave has long given notion to the paradoxical relationship between the artist and society, the two sides on the divide of Art itself who, Socrates says, are incarcerated together, for better or worse. The inherent responsibilities suggested by this divide among these "strange prisoners" are something that Socrates's eager pupil does not fully understand until he illustrates his methodology's higher calling of truth and intellect tempered with pity and sympathy: all artists, upon seeing the figurative sun outside, must return inside to the cavern and share what they have learned, imparting to others how to discern what those playful shadows on the wall really are. From this conversation, however, despite Socrates's concluding conditional veneration of the artist, a reader can perhaps sense an underlying apprehension over Art's necessary social quality given the circumstances of imprisonment and confusion that Glaucon alludes to initially. How do artists, after all, create a conversant quality to their Art with someone who has less-than-unfettered sight when they themselves are unsure of their explanation of the truth and of the best method to do so? There appears to be very little room in Socrates's cave for experimentation, all those usual messy trials and tribulations that come with artists often realizing that they don't know if what they're doing is correct, or even something resembling Art.
Popahna Brandes's In an I more or less picks up where Glaucon's bewilderment left off. It is a contemporary translation of the allegorical cave that would meet Socrates's approval for the proving ground of Art, though with a notable exception: Brandes's methodology runs backwards from the social to the personal in a process plagued with doubt, missteps, and obfuscation.
Sent to an exclusive and decidedly eccentric establishment in central Europe known as "The English Speaking Cultural Experimentation Society of the Lowlands," Brandes's unidentified narrator is granted special permission by its funders to observe the private facility for a week and interact with its strange prisoners, the residential participants, as they work on their individual projects in various fields of study. The building itself, a reconverted tenement facility with a peculiar outlay of studios, personal residences, hallways for displaying work-in-progress, and social areas for participants to interact, adds architectural challenges that are subtle enough to affect the creative processes of its inhabitants and the Society's tightly structured rules. No outside visitors are allowed; the public in the small town where the building is located sees nothing of the work being done. The notes compiled from each residency of indeterminate length are eventually "coded" and published by the Experimentation Society in anonymous fashion and made available to future participants, yet they never read them for the benefit of their own work. The only thing that counts, explains the narrator, is progress itself, the presentation of which is left to its own devices in the hallways using a simple posting system. And whether any schedule is implemented or anything is accomplished are matters left entirely to the participant. In many respects, they are free to do as they please, but the narrator soon learns this freedom is seldom employed in any gainful fashion.
Despite generally finding these participants, their work, and the general procedures of the Society to be idiosyncratic or awkward during the allotted week, the narrator manages to strike up an initially detached audience with Ila, one of the more tenured participants. A troubled woman with a mysterious background whom the other participants appear to avoid by unspoken mutual consent, Ila and her story serve as the focal points for the novel's primary emphasis on the tenuous but strong connections between women who work together in the attempt to understand themselves, what happens around them, and the endless aims of Art to explain, forgive, and renew those bonds. It won't be as easy as Socrates suggests, either. Social and intellectual obstacles abound for the narrator not only in her dealing with the other residents and the academic "competition" between them, but with Ila and her work on a consistent basis throughout the week as well. Not the least of Ila's problematic dealings with the narrator is her propensity for non sequitur in her writing, coupled with her emulation of Melville's Bartleby as an abrupt, prickly cipher whenever she's tasked at any length about her purpose at the Society:
"Well?" Ila said. "Let's get on with it."
I felt as if she expected me to know what she was thinking, to be waiting ahead of her.
"Would it be possible to discuss your project?"
"I'd rather not," Ila replied.
"What would you like to talk about then?"
"Anything, really, as long as we don't start with the project."
After careful prodding by the narrator, however, she does gradually open up via her disjointed system of journal writings referred to as portrayals ("a portrait and betrayal in one . . . moving toward a narrative") that constitutes her sanctioned project at the Society. Altogether these portrayals function as a series of fragmented observations and ruminations resembling memoir, most of which center upon a crucial time in her early life before she eventually made her way to the figurative cave awaiting her, and they are all cast in a particularly harsh self-critical mode:
November 20, 1993: Again, I am in the dark. In a familiar place. Comforting, alienated. We have chosen to ignore one another. So, let me begin this because it begins somewhere, as any other operation begins, with some prior knowledge, a share of investment, an expectation that it will work. And lest I forget to mention: it was early on that I realized the portrait project was meant to fall apart. It was not a failure. It was not doomed. We began this story as an experiment in failure.
Prodded on further by the narrator's written questions for Ila, the novel oscillates continuously between the observer's daily narration of the Society's happenings and Ila's own explanations, her pursuit of her familial history, her idyllic-yet-menial upbringing in the European countryside, and a crucial incident concerning her close childhood friend, Claire. Interspersed with the portrayals in diary form, the main narrative transitions between Ila and the narrator's mostly futile attempts to rectify Ila the woman and Ila the individual experimenter (as well as navigating the other participants of the Society). In an I seeks to address those dissociative properties of writing itself always understated by the artist, especially when one's writing avoids forming social bonds with others through trying to establish the artist's sense of personal identity. Not surprisingly, Ila's fundamental problem becomes the narrator's as she becomes less of an observer and more of a collaborator. Exasperated with Ila's material and her own inability to makes sense of it all, the narrator wonders how she will be able to assess and eventually aid Ila's project of "failure" once her stay is finished, and why this should—and does—concern herself.
In an I (readers, by the way, should note the palindromic double entendre) will ask readers to consider the mysteries of collective work and the very nature of collaborative writing between not only writer and reader, but those people who are being written about, how one should avoid "making statements rather than conversation." To be sure, the novel's premise has a self-reflexive trace of Plato's allegory working with it in this regard, and Ila has constant doubts over the substantive value of her project ("'It's not a thriller,' she said, 'but it's certainly perplexing'") and whether it is worth sharing with anyone. By attempting to toe the line between Ila's story and the narrator's attempts to draw it out, however, Brandes compellingly explores the social bonds of these women that are firmed by narrative conveyance and its processes. This includes those bonds that are touched by violence, namely the horrible secret Ila keeps to herself until it is uncovered by the narrator, as well as the artist's insistence to not explain or fully reveal the truth as a sort of private penance beyond the confines of art. As the narrator tries to rationalize and organize Ila's portrayals, she eventually realizes that such a thing may never be possible, leaving herself agonizing over the novel's central question and how to resolve the discord between Ila and Claire. When change happens around the artist, when one works so dangerously away from the sun, In an I speculates, the return to those waiting outside for something more tangible and real than truth and beauty may be the greater, more human calling.