Sunday, April 05, 2009

Texas acrostic

Lorrie Moore's NYRB review of a new biography of Donald Barthelme takes a thought-provoking turn to consider how literary biographies can produce some artifacts of the biographical procedure. Moore includes this great anecdote about looking for biographical clues in a person's work (the bold paragraph is a quotation from Tracy Daugherty's book):
Mr. Barthelme the architect was also given to cleverness and mischief similar to his son's: when he designed Texas's Hall of State, he had carved into the frieze of the building the names of fifty-nine legendary Texans. According to Daugherty:

The first letters of the first eight names, reading left to right—-Burleson, Archer, Rusk, Travis, Higg, Ellis, Lamar, and Milam—-spell the architect's name, minus only the final e. A playful touch, a buried secret: These would become hallmarks of his eldest son's art, as well.

The elder Barthleme's architectural acrostic does reveal hidden meanings, but Moore is also interested in what happens when looking for specific thumbprints doesn't yield as easily to interpretation. That's the weirdness of the acrostic: what happens when looking for ways to fill in the blanks of an author's work (the building, the book) doesn't produce clues about identity? Or what if it can't because the genre (of the acrostic, the literary biography) has certain delimitations which produce some effects through its conventions but foreclose others? What I like so much about Moore's discussion here is that she identifies how familiar syntactical structures generate (and not just record) these artifacts (bold paragraphs are from Daughterty):
In Tracy Daugherty's extensive discussion of Barthelme's work he has a literary scholar's predilection for locating, as if they were truffles, "lifts" and "echoes" and "resonant touchstones" (from Eliot, from Perelman, from Woolf). This sort of detective work, as if it were mapping the genome of a narrative, may seem to some the downside of graduate literary education (Daugherty was once in fact a graduate student of Barthelme's): to paraphrase our current poet laureate, Kay Ryan, why become a doctor of something that can't be fixed? Daugherty's determined textual sleuthing—-the kind of thing an average reader can now do on Google-—means to be respectful and interesting, but it strains and sweats and risks the inadvertently hostile result of seeming to want to undermine the originality of the writer, one whom Daugherty himself claims as radical and original and at one point "the nation's finest prose stylist."

Daugherty's comparisons are labor-intensive and sometimes unconvincing—"the sentences echo Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground," he says even of an early newspaper article—and this gumshoe's persistence in tracking down influences and mimicries, serendipitous or intentional, sometimes bogs the biographer down:

Time ran an article on Black Orpheus and the French New Wave.... Whether or not Don was thinking of this article, he clearly had in mind Walker Percy's The Moviegoer as he began reworking "The Hiding Man."...Like Ralph Ellison's protagonist in Invisible Man, Burlingame has freed himself from the received ideas of society and church.

Even describing Barthelme's early adult life in Houston, Daugherty can get startlingly sidetracked:

In the first seven months of his marriage, Don, in his capacity as an arts reviewer, could offer his wife a wide array of cultural excitement (whenever he could get her out)—-from an evening of Mozart piano sonatas performed by Paur Badura-Skoda, fresh from the Viennese Conservatory, to the Latin singing of Joaquin Garay, best known as the voice of Panchito in Disney's The Three Caballeros ("Disney's horniest animated feature," according to one reviewer).

The inner core of the biographical subject is invariably elusive, the golden needle in the biographer's haystack of research. So what do we really want from a literary biography?

There are some intense phrases in this concern--"the kind of thing any average reader could do with Google," "inadvertently hostile result of seeming to want to undermine the originality of the author" among them. So how else to unpack the playful touch/buried secret features of Barthleme's stories--or are there are other ways to think about the experiments in style and form than as decodable biography? Does the incomplete acrostic trick point to other directions for fooling around with conventions of literary biography when the subject is someone who was committed to the practice of fooling around? Here's James Wolcott's review of Barthelme's short stories which talks about how conventions get exploded in his work:
Donald Barthelme was the Stephen Sondheim of haute fiction—a dexterous assembler of witty, mordant, intricate devices that, once exploded, exposed the sawdust and stuffing of traditional forms. His stories weren’t finely rendered portrait studies in human behavior or autobiographical reveries à la Johns Updike and Cheever, but a row of boutiques showcasing his latest pranks, confections, gadgets, and Max Ernst/Monty Python–ish collages. Like Sondheim’s biting rhymes and contrapuntal duets, Barthelme’s parlor tricks and satiric ploys were accused early on of being cerebral, preeningly clever, hermetically sealed, and lacking in “heart” of supplying the clattering sound track to the cocktail party of the damned.

Moore's posing this problem puts me in mind of when Jenny Turner asked a similar question about finding the Lorrie Moore in her collected works, given that Moore has shrugged off a lot of the author/text clue-mining, except in "People Like That Are the Only People Here" (from Birds of America):
‘People Like That Are the Only People Here’ made a huge impact when it was first published in the New Yorker in 1997, partly because the magazine’s editors wrote oddly tendentious furniture for it, strongly implying that the story was a piece of journalism: ‘Have writers of memoirs taken over a field that once belonged to novelists? The question is at the heart of a story of a mother and child,’ read the strapline, with a photograph of the author, captioned by a quotation from her story, as though it had been spoken in real life. The year after, in an interview with Salon, Moore acknowledged an ‘autobiographical element’, but denied that the story was memoir. ‘It was fiction . . . Things did not happen exactly that way; I reimagined everything. And that’s what fiction does. Fiction can come from real-life events and still be fiction.’ Beyond this, Moore does not appear to have said anything in public about the relationship of the story to any real-life events behind it.

‘There is the desire of readers for Something that Really Happened,’ Moore told the Believer in 2005. ‘If a narrative uses language in a magical and enlivening way, we will listen to the story. But if the language doesn’t cast a spell, we will listen to it only if it is telling us something that actually happened.’ Reading ‘People Like That Are the Only People Here’ is a staggering experience, but the fact remains that more money and attention might be wrung from such a subject when presented as memoir: a front in the New York Times, say, big, sad picture, prominent nose-to-mouth lines, preferably holding the (bald? cannulated? completely recovered?) small child. The indications, within the story, that memoir was possible, was contemplated and was refused, give an already powerful piece of writing an almost unbearable performative force. As does the rightly celebrated kicker of an ending:

There are the notes.

Now where is the money?

I think Turner's meditation on the results of trying to find Lorrie Moore in her style does produce some alternate ways of considering the biography of an author. But Turner's essay (and Wolcott's essay) is a review of collected works, and the work of interpretation is perhaps different when one is writing a literary biography. What are some good books which have handled this problem of questionable clue-mining in literary biography, given that literary interpretation has been endlessly productive of decoding work but may also be given to discussions of style, syntax, and genre in considering the conventions of biography-writing?

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