October 19, 2016

Book Review: Renee Gladman, "Calamities"

Calamities, by Renee Gladman

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By Renee Gladman
Wave Books
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

Renee Gladman, like many authors, tends to return to a handful of concerns. Most central of them is the complications of language, the turns a book of any sort takes as soon as it leaves the writer's mind and comes onto paper. This theme sat at the center of her 2008 book To After That (Toaf), an extended essay about why she didn't finish writing her novel After That. It's a fascinating book, and one that provides us a window into this one; its ultimate conclusion is that not even an author can truly know their own work. This theme strikes back hard with this book. Gladman's work usually sits on the fault line between fiction and poetry, which I was expecting here, especially based on a) its title and b) the post-apocalyptic concerns of works like Juice and Newcomer Can't Swim, works that describe the build-up to and aftermath of catastrophes without describing the catastrophes themselves. Here, as with To After That, we see Gladman essaying. To say it suits her would be an understatement; I'd wager it's her finest work yet.

The style of these essays, all of them short, is so impressionistic that it's probably safe to call these works "essay-poems" instead of essays proper. She recites a whole litany of feelings she has when she wakes up, recounts her impressions of working with her creative writing students, puts herself in dialog with the work that has influenced her (Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni comes up frequently), and, eventually deciding that what she wants to create is a "picture-feeling" (also the title of one of her works), takes up drawing alongside writing. Drawing helps her confront some of her anxiety about written communication, but this inevitably complicates as well, as she describes in the novel's climactic "Eleven Calamities" section, which rapidly balloons into fourteen calamities as more complexities of communication emerge.

Sounds like an essay so far, or at least a particularly focused memoir. Yet it also shares the minimalism that Gladman has worked with since Juice, a minimalism so austere that the reader is often left to draw their own connections between events and feelings. Gladman favors strategic section breaks, cutting out of her essays at strange times and entering other spaces. She writes about a desire to give one of her books "trees, architecture, people. Buildings first, then people" (53) and then jumps to "looking into the cover of a book called the Fold for a sign" (54). Or she'll speculate about her own process on one page (page 106, specifically) and then drink a cup of coffee on 107, as though her own process drains her. So it's a great writer-on-writing book, but it's an even better communicator-on communication book, and that's really the key to it.

Out of 10: 9.5

Read even more about Calamities: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 6:00 AM, October 19, 2016. Filed under: