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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Leslie Scalapino's Floats Horse-Floats or Horse-Flows reviewed by Jason Calsyn

Leslie Scalapino
Floats Horse-Floats or Horse-Flows
Starcherone Books 2010.
164 pages.
RRP $18.

Reviewed by Jason Calsyn

Alexia and Simultaneity:

Leslie Scalapino’s Floats Horse-Floats or Horse-Flows is a brilliant, confusing, occasionally maddening, tour-de-force of a book. Written through the lens of “alexia”, a neurological disorder which causes patients to be unable to comprehend written language, Floats Horse-Floats or Horse-Flows presents itself in a mutated, almost-indecipherable prose. The reader is presented with a state of approximated alexia, a text which intentionally eludes meaning and chronology. Words and sentences fracture mid-thought, causing the far-reaching narrative to spin off in unexpected directions. The “narrative” jumps from the chaos of the Iraq war to the mountains of Tibet, from the jungles of Africa to the flooded city of New Orleans, and from India to Afghanistan, seemingly at random. Yet Scalapino weaves a strong enough thread throughout that these sudden shifts of locale flow seamlessly into one another, and once the reader gives in to fractured nature of the text, a brightly-lit world of contradiction and painful beauty opens up.

Alexia usually arises from traumatic brain injury, and though the narration of Floats Horse-Floats or Horse-Flows isn’t restricted to the perspective of one character, there is an implication that the disorder as presented has been caused by some violence of war. Bloody images abound, explosions and machine guns and corpses. Helicopters assault marketplaces full of people, orphans stagger from wreckage. War and death predominate, and the trauma invoked by this violence provokes an urge to turn away from the carnage. The text, too, turns away continually, as if the disembodied narrator can’t stand to look at the unfolding scenes. Suddenly we’re confronted with an image of Venus Williams playing tennis, or a cheetah evading poachers. Sometimes these transitions occur mid-sentence, and it is a tribute to the strength of Scalapino’s language that such jumps happen smoothly.

A concept embedded in the framework of the book is that of simultaneity. Scalapino repeatedly expresses a disdain for concepts of past and future, insisting that we exist in an eternal present in which all events are occurring at once. In this light, the kaleidoscopic imagery can be seen as fractured aspects of a single moment, different faces of the same beast. The constantly shifting frame of reference makes sense from this perspective, and Scalapino’s focus on distilled images rather than narrative blocks add to the sense that the book as a whole should be seen as one continuous event seen from different angles, different points of view. Thus, if a sentence begins with an investigator trying to hunt down rare animal poachers, then jumps to an image of a horse making its way through flood waters in New Orleans, the juxtaposition is harmonious rather than jarring; the events are part of the same matrix.

All this is made possible by Scalapino’s bizarrely flowing lyricism. The underlying theme of alexia manifests itself in half-recognizable words and fractured grammatical structures. The structure of language itself is under assault here, and in this respect Floats Horse-Floats or Horse-Flows shares much in common with the work of William S. Burroughs, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf. The reader is not necessarily meant to understand every line. A haze of confusion and disorientation is created, a fog which makes individual images all the more striking when they surface. The reader is made to experience the inability to make sense of words, a confusion which lends a sense of triumphant discovery when a line clicks and substance breaks through. These moments happen often enough that there is a continual sense of novelty which allows the reader to navigate the text without relying on such concepts as plot or character development to move the “story” forward.

Some readers will undoubtedly have difficulty with the broken structure of the text: any book which relies on causing confusion in the reader will undoubtedly frustrate many. And this is a difficult text. The greatest strengths and failings of Floats Horse-Floats or Horse-Flows arise from the alexia concept, because, while allowing Scalapino the freedom to twist and distort language as she pleases, it also puts the reader in the uncomfortable position of often not understanding what is happening in a given scene. The idea of miscomprehension of words is fascinating on a conceptual level, but a given reader may decide that, in practice, he or she is more interested in understanding the material than understanding what it is to not understand.

So, risks are being taken here. But all worthwhile literature takes risks. Scalapino has faith in her material, and her willingness to risk alienating a certain percentage of readers in order to express a perspective of confusion is admirable. To Scalapino’s great credit, she ably pulls off the task of creating a text which is at once comprehensible and incomprehensible, flowing and static, opaque and crystalline. The reader who isn’t repelled by the lack of linearity in the text is richly rewarded with insights into the nature of war, suffering, and pleasure. Though much of the subject matter is harsh, there is an aching beauty to the images here that cuts through the darkness and brings both understanding and appreciation. Many of these images, such as a horse in water, chrysanthemum flowers, and the phrase “dark night in the heart’s lake”, recur in such a way that the image conjured rotates each time, revealing itself from different angles. Since the idea of a continuous present is front and center throughout, the lens of the text becomes a kind of cubism, an opportunity to view the represented events from multiple perspectives at once.

In the end, it will be up to the individual reader to decide if Floats Horse-Floats or Horse-Flows is rewarding enough to justify wading through its often-frustrating pages. This book is not a novel in the traditional sense. There aren’t clearly defined characters to embody the concepts of the book. Nothing truly happens here, or rather nothing ever stops happening. There are no edges, only a continually evolving and mutating single event, scattered across the corners of the earth. This philosophy is illustrated beautifully in the unfolding pages of Floats Horse-Floats or Horse-Flows. Whether one agrees with Scalapino’s concepts or not, they make for fascinating art. Expect to be challenged, expect to have moments of wanting to throw the book out the window, but expect above all to be interested. What happens “after” is anyone’s guess.