Tuesday, June 24, 2008

While on tour in California a couple of months back, I read Juliana Spahr's The Transformation, certainly one of the best novels (if it's a novel) published in my lifetime, and the best investigation I've seen of the questions and contradictions that thoughtful North Americans (and, in particular, politically concerned artists) tend to run into in the 21st century.

Spahr's novel is intelligent, moving, crucial, tentative in all the best ways while remaining emphatic in its ethical commitment. It's the story of the change in her writing that led to her wartime poetry collection, This Connection of Everyone with Lungs. Told almost entirely in the third person plural, it's the story of a three-person relationship that moves to Hawaii in the late '90s. There "they" meet with a series of contradictions and absent places: their roles as low-grade pawns in the post-grad employment machine, which is at the same time a vast system reproducing cultural imperialism in a colonized place; the ecology, alien to them but also invasive as regards the island; the lack of social support for the kind of sexual relationship they've undertaken; the foregrounding of the impossibility of ranking issues of class, race, gender, and aesthetic commitments. It's the story of their subsequent move to another colonized set of islands (New York), and the effects of 9/11 and the beginning of the "War on Terror" on every aspect of their lives. Most of all, it's a story about discovering vulnerabilities, at first imposed upon the "they" of the book, and finally sought after in the consciousness that only the opening of themselves to all these contradictions, difficulties and dangers can make possible a life and a writing that could, in the midst of social, cultural, economic and political crisis, point toward more desirable forms of human existence.

I'm thankful for this courageous cultivation of vulnerability, this openness to one's possible and even inevitable wrongness that nonetheless refuses resignation, choosing instead to see ethical contradiction and error as the mask shown by possible alternatives in a historical period that blocks their real appearance.

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