by Denise Leto
Where cities built by magic
parted before us like mirages
mint captured our way
birds escorted us
and fish swam upstream
while the sky spread out before us
as Fate followed in our wake
like a madman brandishing a razor.
(From Andrei Tarkovsky’s film, The Mirror, written
by the filmmaker’s father, poet Arseny Tarkovsky)
Renee Gladman, in Newcomer Can’t Swim, gives us cities like these: at once hypnotic and treacherous, mapped and counter-mapped, landscape and dreamscape. Artifact and experience pull against each other and the reader, expertly guided, falls somewhere in between. Characters are brought forth, and then questioned; we can never really know them, because the narrator doesn’t fully know them. They wander through her lines, which read as a metaphor for streets in specific urban settings and for almost Anywhere, USA. The disorientation is what orients: welcome to this world. The known is in the not-knowing. How we organize or think about our multiple realities in 21st century urban North American society is at stake.
Gladman is best known for her books, Juice (2001) and The Activist (2003). Her work is most often referred to as “new prose” or “narrativity” along with poets and writers such as Gail Scott, Pamela Lu, Camille Roy, Mary Burger, and Robert Glück, among others. And for good reason–Gladman’s prose/poetry is not incantatory and neither is it reportage–it is a re-writing of genre and of the world. Boundary conditions, even of blended forms, are frangible and deliberately subverted. The narrative consciousness is polyphonic and discordant with unconventional transitions and sentence construction. Newcomer Can’t Swim does not offer a given signage. Though the reader can follow, the following leads everywhere and nowhere. Here everything is in progression: the story, and the form and by what language the totality of her experiment is named.
The book is divided into seven main sections. The first, “Untitled, Park in City,” begins, “Above the head, a mouth. . .” (1) and ends, “The eyelids shut” (2). It serves as an introduction to the body and to the body of the book. The reader is asked to externalize the instrument of language while also viewing it through a closed interiority. This sets up the twinning of subjectivity and narrativity throughout the book and the limitations of each. From the narrator: “. . . I have the map you drew in my back pocket,/but I want to get to you without using the map. . . . I am not in the place where you live. I am on my way there. . . ” and “. . .What street/is on the corner of two other streets? What could you have/meant?” (5). Is the narrator lost? Or situated in the errant cartography of the designed city? Or suspended between the constructed binary of self and other? The tension between the intimacy of contact and the isolation of distance at once exalts and exhausts.
The shifting realities in Newcomer develop by accretion. Her sentences are conduits through the urban landscape and punctuation functions as a kind of traffic signal. Stop. Go. Yield. Turn. She modifies and directs the way the space of the page is experienced as a communicative device. Each paragraph is site-specific. Gladman sees them as “installations.” It is easy to see why. There is volition, a patterning modulation and a figurative repletion; they are both philosophic and cinematic. They motion to one another in scenes with long takes and jump-cuts. She writes, “When the birds leap off the wall/and enter this world, no one/reacts. The museum simply/closes its doors; the artist leaves/the country. The birds fly above/us—all the inhabitants of the/zone—and in that way of birds, /form their own world” (101).
The geography of the external collides with the geography of the internal producing a democratized aesthetic of indeterminacy. Epistemological borders are permeable even as concrete and experiential differences abound. Throughout the book, but especially in the third section, “Untitled, Woman on Ground,” and the fourth section “Untitled, Colorado,” Gladman upends themes of race, gender, class, and sexual identity with genre-bending precision. The city and the word are a locus of power and devastation. Sentences break; people bleed. Constructions of self and other are contested. Multiple questions arise: What is the obligation between the polis and the private, the subject and the object, the language of autobiography and the language of autography? The social production of identity and its manifestation in the every day is what her characters inhabit and question.
In “Untitled, Woman on Ground,” the danger of crossing the street becomes the racial politics of moving through communities (which becomes the danger of “being,” highlighting the inequity and peril of the world in which you do reside and the inaccessible world in which you do notand how your self-presentation and “being-ness” is perceived and mis/treated). The narrator describes a scene:
|These are the externals: one, you will never make it homein time; two, cars have bumpers but pedestrians do not
and this is not universally understood; three, you have been
plowed into by a car; and four, a crowd encircles you but it
is an inattentive crowd. ‘What are you doing,’ you gurgle
to a man near you. ‘Standing guard,’ he replies with his
chest puffed out. So, if they are proud, you are. . . ? (11)
The driver is a white male; the angry youth is black. (I did this
on purpose. Here are two reasons. First, as you’re lying
there, as this youth is very articulate, you can convalesce in
thinking he’s family: he represents you. Second, I wanted
to see if anything has changed now that blacks are the second
largest “minority” in this country instead of the first—
if that makes their voice more like an echo, if the anger of it
has receded.) (16)
The scene of an accident, its chaos, fear, anger, shock, dislocation, forced interaction and the quality and tenor of rescue, is beleaguered and uncompromising. Gladman’s words circle and haunt, they expose and harbor, they confront and query—and they never underestimate the reader. She interrogates racism and the condition of African Americans in a contemporary urban locale. It is a moving (as in motion, as in heartbreak) rendering of the brutal and delicate vicissitudes of connection and loss in a failing society. “I want to tell you that this is a metaphor or a dream, as in/Kundera, but you are too fascinated with dying to hear me” (22).
In “Untitled, Colorado,” Gladman again underscores conflicted social biases and the disorientation of public space. The narrator “I” and the character “A.” are waiting to be seated in a restaurant. The waiting is delayed and fraught. It is unclear exactly why they are not being seated. Is it racism? Homophobia? Both? “‘Gladman party of two’. . . . But she [the hostess] doesn’t mean us. I can’t explain how I know. My name is Gladman and there are two of us. . .but that call, it’s for a different sort of folk” (25). The narrator “I” has the same last name as the author. Additionally, the mysterious party of “Gladman’s” that the hostess does call further complicates the layering of subject and object. Misrepresentation becomes representation in the text and the metatext.
The scene fluctuates between states of mind at turns anxious, angry, knowing, and detached. Visual and auditory stimuli crowd the experience and exacerbate the relegation of the characters as “other” and the cleft positioned between them and the rest of the world. That the first person narrator/character is listening to an audio book (from which phrases are taken and interspersed with the text and which is either a travel guide or an account of the disappearance of two women, or both), while this is taking place adds another stratum of displacement and involvement. When the two women finally make it inside the restaurant, they experience sanctuary only in the restroom. From the narrator: “The bathroom is unoccupied. Once inside, I pull her tank top over her head and seize her left nipple with my mouth. I have to stand on the toilet to do this. Well, I have to kneel on the toilet. I tug on the nipple, and wrap my arms around her waist. She does next what all day I’ve been hoping she would do, and afterwards screams, ‘Re…!’” (28).
This urgent and starkly beautiful lesbian lovemaking in a place called “Colorado” in a line of other “Gladman’s” in a restaurant of ugly repute in a room of literal elimination is how the couple finally enters and creates their own space. The restaurant, however, subsumes them as they return to their table. “Everybody’s white. . . . A. signs to me. . . ‘You’re talking too loud’. . . . The waiter rushes over. . . ‘Ladies, could you come with me?’” (29). The body and the idea of the body are impugned. But the other Gladman intervenes. “Meanwhile, words between the waiter and old Mr. Gladman are destabilizing” (29). There is innuendo, accusation, overlapping exchanges, and a general hush of bewildered intention. In the end, Mr. Gladman pays their bill. Yet, “Outside nothing has changed. The car is still in the parking lot; the sun is still out. . . . We pull away from the restaurant and, for some minutes, I allow myself to hold onto the image of Old Mr. Gladman. ‘What happened back there?’ I ask A. . . . , ‘Could have been anything,’ I open the book, replace the headphones” (31). The reader is left to her own flawed devices. As in an earlier statement in the section, “More of this relying on signals for comfort” (27).
Newcomer Can’t Swim is full of false starts, occlusions, and constancy. Sometimes this can lapse into a kind of writerly ennui. A dearth of structural variation or tone change, when the composition lulls, the repetition reads flat or the characters too indistinct, the feeling can be inchoate in a way that may vex or tire the reader. But this is extremely rare, as pause and interval are deftly handled, repetition and character are animate and superbly written, and contemplative turns are timed and welcome. The front cover, strikingly designed by Quemadura and perfectly fitted to the book, is textured and the seemingly rusty remnants are ominous. The font between sections of the book pushes forward with its uppercase diagonal sweep to the next page. Gladman writes, “Being in a place ‘Colorado’ that doesn’t quite look like ‘Colorado’. . . makes you begin to wonder about maps and orientation. I want to test these thoughts” (26). Again, the author’s thinking about thinking is a kind of map—but without a legend. In Newcomer Can’t Swim, the map is cultural construction, dissolution, and illusion. People and locations disregulate. Sudden and overwhelming meteorological events occur; rain, wind, and leaves are almost themselves characters. Positionality is the setting and the undoing.
In “Kingdom in Three Panels,” the penultimate section and perhaps the most important, Gladman’s voice is surreal and almost subliminal. In the first subsection, written in short paragraphs, “Street and Cello,” the four characters are running from something. They move lithely and then thickly through time and space. “Mona paints the image of Natalie running from the door/of the pink house exactly one hour before she does it. . . .” (41). Rain interrupts the action and then becomes it. There is a violin (that is really a cello) in the distance (that no one is playing). There are repeated sequences made to seem random but are deliberately unscored and build, quite suspensefully, to sentences like this: “In this way Eva, Mona, and Natalie take refuge on the partially covered rooftop. . . . Eva considers the rain, recalls the fish” (55). The characters enact but cannot entirely articulate the rush or what magnitude of risk. A flood? Hurricane Katrina?i “The light mutes behind gray clouds, such as winter, such as fish beneath the waves of water” (46).
Gladman continues this disturbing twist around what we think is happening and what we think is not happening with the next section, “Louie Between Cities,” which is more expository. Species, place, and time are malleable, contorted and under threat. The character “Louie” is now a dog, and reflects and expands on what occurred in “Street and Cello.” The roads are flooded with detritus, and bodies float. Louie witnesses the infrastructural and human wreckage on the streets, and makes direct address to his own lost companion. A catastrophic event and the abysmal, criminal failure of response have created an incomprehensible crisis and split between experience and reality. The perspective of a person is “channeled” through the perspective of a dog. Or vice versa? It is not gratuitously anthropomorphic. It is just that Louie the dog, as narrator, grabs attention such that we cannot turn away. Gladman writes, “Of course my thoughts went instantly to you. I was still without an answer, but I’d practiced a lie . . . . [B]ecause I did not have access to fact. And they accepted it, for indeed it was a narrative I could have lived had I . . . ” (60).
In the final section of the book, “Zone,” Gladman writes the epitaph, “after Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Stalkerii” (84). This film takes place in a desolate urban landscape, which is forbidden territory patrolled by the government. After the previous section, the exploration of Tarkovsky’s film here is a perfect gesture. The characters are called “The Writer” and “The Professor.” “The Stalker,” (“stalker” as in “tracking”), leads them through natural and preternatural obstacles to a room that may or may not grant their innermost wishes. It is post-apocalyptic allegory. Gladman re-tells the story (of a story) in bruising and elegant language. Small details and complex, impossible dilemmas fuel the unresolved “plot.” In her book as in the film, the element of water is a constant: mud oozes, water drips, pools form and transform. The room itself is a portal into the nearly biblical and Dante-esque unknown. As spoken by the film’s stalker character, “. . . The Zone is a very complicated system of traps and they’re all deadly…safe spots become impassable. Now your path is easy, now it is hopelessly involved. That’s the Zone . . .It lets those pass who have lost all hope. . . . ”
Renee Gladman’s characters are equally despairing with contracted emotion and desires. Whether the characters in the film enter the room is never revealed. Likewise, whether or not any of Gladman’s many characters experience resolution is left open. It is also of note that in this section of the book, her writing assumes a more recognized poetic structure with short lines forming a narrow column down the page as if leaving the reader with an inconclusive nod to form. She writes, “Because the worlds shift, I can’t/believe in either of them. The/power of the room remains/closed to us, thus I give the room/no power. I wish. Now watching/the water pour down” (93). These lines, perhaps invoking the book’s title—that the new, the untested, may be vulnerable or thwarted—that all of us are the “Newcomer.” Can we keep our heads above water? The last word of this extraordinary book “as” tells us that we do not yet know (104).
ii) The film is based on a science fiction novel, A Picnic on the Roadside, by the Russian writers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky.