This book defies placement in a genre, but that doesn’t mean it is anything opaque or mysterious. What makes it truly remarkable is the intelligence of insight and the formal innovation — what makes any work important. But the variety of attitudes and approaches — of voice — also fuels the enterprise. In a collection of phrases and sentences ranging to a full paragraph, it has the casual, throwaway feeling the title invites. But the observations continually surprise in their distance from whatever came before and follows. On the one hand, it feels like a collection of intelligent quips collected for bathroom reading. But just when you’re sure there’s nothing worth noting, some musing leaves you re-reading and chewing on an idea that’s been raised.
From Old Notebooks
By Evan Lavender-Smith
At one point he comments, “The greatness of a certain type of poet— a poet like Stein, for example — may be determined by her ability to let go of her control over language in a very controlled manner.” But that’s it. No discussion or explanation of a definitely provocative claim, no more about Stein. The previous line reads “Death has very white teeth.” The following entry, a comment on Monday night football on television, likewise stands as its own island.
Certain themes and figures do recur, which helps unify the work, but each one hangs as if it were its own particle, separate but glowing amid assembled debris. There’s no connection between one and the next and no discernible direction or development. So we find comments about the author’s wife and child along with quotidian pop culture references, notes about literature and art, about Heidegger, philosophy, and larger global perceptions.
It is structured like poetry, in shifting events and tones without transition, though there are none of the shifts of view or idea within each passage that characterize contemporary poetry. And the language is ruthlessly prosaic, like a casual conversation with an unusually reflective friend. The diction invites you to see what the author sees.
At a time dominated by sound bites, one-sentence analysis, and instant messages, Lavender-Smith’s book fits perfectly. “ Perhaps I insist on calling FON a novel because I’m leaving all the crap in,” he writes. And it does seem that the book could accommodate just about anything. There’s no sense of anything essential; though nothing in it has anything to do with “novel”. But this startling, insightful compendium reminds us what literature is in its endless, mutating forms. This one seems its own inimitable beast, but it is absolutely worth the effort.