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Sunday, December 13, 2009

Louis Streitmatter's _ A New Map of America _ (James Brubaker, Ed.), reviewed by Jack Boettcher

A New Map of America
Louis Streitmatter
Edited by James Brubaker
The Cupboard, Vol. 2, 2008
Chapbook, 45 pp., tape-bound.

Reviewed by Jack Boettcher
Photos & captions: Tarpaulin Sky
As a creative practice, mapping precipitates its most productive effects through a finding that is also a founding; its agency lies in neither reproduction nor imposition but rather in uncovering realities previously unseen or unimagined, even across seemingly exhausted grounds […] Not all maps accomplish this, however; some simply reproduce what is already known. These are more ‘tracings’ than maps, delineating patterns but revealing nothing new. In describing and advocating more open-ended forms of creativity, philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari declare: ‘Make a map not a tracing!’

—James Corner, “The Agency of Mapping”
In Louis Streitmatter’s—or James Brubaker’s—A New Map of America, mapping is invoked as an act of creation, its pragmatic value de-prioritized or at times even ignored. Louis Streitmatter, the cartographer central to the narrative and the man consumed with the daunting task suggested by the title, is decidedly a maker of maps, not tracings. He is revealed to us through brief, anecdotal impressions related by his unsolicited editor, Brubaker, who narrates first in the form of an editorial preface and then later in digressive footnotes to Streitmatter’s mappings. Brubaker is an old friend whose distance from Streitmatter suggests that the cartographer mystified even those closest to him. Streitmatter is as much an artist as a cartographer (he once provided the editor with a “cubist rendering of my condominium’s floor plan”), and his cartographical aesthetic suggests that an intuitive, multi-dimensional, and often non-representational approach to mapping provides the more accurate assessment of our environment, or at least the more “vital, and beautiful,” terms in which Streitmatter locates the goals of his cartography. Usefulness in this branch of cartography is not completely ignored, but fleshed out to encompass a range of possible uses—primarily for those who might wish to know the land as well as cross it. Brubaker’s preface familiarizes us with the various approaches, methodologies, and artistic concerns in Streitmatter’s work, including a description of Streitmatter’s Virgin Isles map, which employs both achingly fine detail and wry minimalism to get at the “true essence” of the isles:
The manner in which he depicted the shoreline allowed us to imagine the beach slowly sinking into the ocean, and the utter blankness of the tourist-centric areas served as a profound representation of those regions’ true essence. This is why Louis Streitmatter’s work was once so respected by cartographers, travelers, and students of geography. The geographers and travelers knew which maps were Louis’s.

This editorial preface gives us a broad view of the cartographer’s eccentricities, but this section is only an introduction to his radical philosophies of mapping as practiced in the resurveying of America. The enigmatic narrative of Louis Streitmatter’s map is realized in the three sections following the editorial preface, narrated by Streitmatter himself: an introduction to the new map of America, the map itself, and Streitmatter’s various notes on the process. In a work of fiction concerned with the marginal—the discipline of cartography, a controversial masterpiece within that discipline—it is fitting and perhaps no accident that Brubaker’s book is composed of the marginal parts of a text—notes, introductions and prefaces, glimpses and beginnings.

Before looking at the sections of the book narrated by Streitmatter, its worth taking a closer look at the editor. James Brubaker is not only the editorial character in this fiction posing as scholarly tribute, but also the writer of A New Map of America, the pamphlet published by The Cupboard and paradoxically also written by (and actually attributed to) Louis Streitmatter, a character in the book. His is a work of fiction that takes its non-fictive conceit seriously enough to involve the design and materiality of the book, and the structure of A New Map of America is in many ways reminiscent of the short, reality-bending fictions of Jorge Luis Borges. Brubaker writes in a similarly essayistic tone, and there are other reference points to Borges, too: Streitmatter’s obsession with transient, seemingly irrelevant landmarks recalls the Borges character Funes, the young man tormented by his marvelous abilities of perception and memory, and Borges reveled in writing about fictional works as though they were extant long before Streitmatter made his oddball survey of America.

However, Brubaker diverges from the conventions of the fiction-as-scholarship in the book’s subtle, rewarding humor and its rich characterization of Louis Streitmatter, which is intimate even as Brubaker professes greater and greater distance from his acquaintance. We see Streitmatter’s map not as a perfect, chiseled elucidation of the idea—as in the fictions of Borges—but through Streitmatter’s obsessions and oddities as a character, a man “in search of my country.” These aspects of the book flourish best in the final section, titled “Selected Landmarks.”. These landmarks are represented as the notes Streitmatter took in the field, and the interplay between Streitmatter’s notations and Brubaker’s annotations is playful and thoughtfully timed. Many of Brubaker’s annotations involve the editor’s attempts to understand Streitmatter through the recollection of personal meetings and accounts of the cartographer’s quirks. Ultimately, Brubaker finds, Streitmatter is mostly unknowable. These footnotes call into question Streitmatter’s entire project as “a scam, fiction posing as fact,” as the editor attempts to verify physically the cartographer’s fleeting landmarks (a tooth, a sandcastle, a man playing guitar) and finds most of them vanished or simply impossible, as when one set of coordinates, described by Streitmatter as an occupied bench by a chilidog stand, lands Brubaker deep within a U.S. military base. Despite the levity in many of these encounters in the field, the map also has its moments of melancholy and concern, as when Streitmatter travels to the White House “looking for Abraham Lincoln’s ghost” after hearing that “legend has it he grows restless and paces when America is in trouble.”

It would be fallacious to reduce all the metafictive elements of the book, as well as the madcap, quixotic nature of Streitmatter’s survey, to mere cleverness. The amusing and engrossing architecture of fake works, dubious accounts, and eccentric biographical details allows A New Map of America a referential insularity that is not only entertaining to explore, but also stimulates meaningful questions regarding how we process the environment around us in the contexts of history, culture, politics, and nature, as well as the way in which we weave our biases into supposedly neutral practices of measurement and observation. Streitmatter’s difficult survey seems to posit that despite our efforts to categorize, classify, and represent our environment, we never find the exacting order we imagine at the outset: the landscape changes as time passes, and all maps remain half-finished and half-honest, sensitive to time and social change. Brubaker (the writer) puts it much more aptly, in the first page of Streitmatter’s “Selected Landmarks”:
I did not find every landmark I set out to find, maybe because I was looking in the wrong places, or maybe because my list felt increasingly dishonest the closer I got to my subject. Ultimately, most of the landmarks I initially considered for the map were discarded or replaced. Somehow, this map’s large expanses of nothingness and the difficult but more suitable replacement landmarks resonate louder and deeper than what I set out to find in the first place.
A New Map of America is a surprising, funny fiction that resonates with its contradictions, comfortable trotting them out. Streitmatter’s map, which is really not too distinguishable from Brubaker’s text, is a work of grand ambition in minute scope, an ode to marginalia, and, best of all, a new way of using fiction to map—not trace—our common space.

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Jack Boettcher is the author of two chapbooks of poetry, Surveyic Hero (horse less press, 2007) and The Deviants (Greying Ghost, 2009), and his poetry and fiction is published or forthcoming in The Denver Quarterly, The Diagram, Fence, Indiana Review, La Petite Zine, Pleiades, and several others. He lives in Austin.